The last time Dinara Safina played a Briton in a Grand Slam tournament she beat Anne Keothavong at the French Open without losing a single game. Elena Baltacha, Keothavong’s successor as British No 1, at least had the consolation of winning three games in the third round of the Australian Open here today before falling victim to the Russian’s power. Safina won 6-1, 6-2 in 57 minutes to take her place in the last 16.
Although Safina has yet to win a Grand Slam title and was humiliated by Serena Williams in last year’s final here, it is easy to forget that the Russian is still the world No 2. In the last seven Grand Slam tournaments she has reached three finals and two semi-finals.
Baltacha, in contrast, only broke into the world’s top 100 last September and was making just her fourth appearance in the main draw of a Grand Slam tournament away from Wimbledon. This was the first time she had made the main draw thanks to her ranking, having climbed to a career-high No 83 earlier this week. Victories earlier in the week over Pauline Parmentier and Kateryna Bondarenko, the world No 32, had taken Baltacha into the third round here for the second time.
While Safina’s game lacks variety, most opponents struggle to cope with the sheer weight of her shots. Baltacha was regularly on the back foot in her own service games as Safina struck some ferocious returns. The pressure told as the Briton dropped her serve with double faults on break point on three different occasions. Although Baltacha hit some decent forehands, Safina struck 19 winners to her opponent’s four.
Baltacha has played on Centre Court at Wimbledon but this was her first appearance on the main show court at any of the other Grand Slam tournaments. Rod Laver Arena was barely a quarter full for the 11am start, though the gaps in the crowd grew smaller as the match progressed.
The Briton could hardly have made a better start, winning the first point after a lengthy baseline rally, but Safina was quickly into her stride and broke serve at the first opportunity. Baltacha broke back immediately, taking advantage of Safina’s mistakes, and drew the biggest applause so far with a confident winning volley in the next game, but the Russian’s power quickly put her on top and she closed out the first set after 26 minutes with a service winner.
Baltacha’s best spell came at the start of the second set, which she opened by winning a service game to love. More confident serving helped her to hold again to trail 3-2, but from that point onwards Safina took control and the Russian sealed victory with a crisp forehand winner.
“It was difficult,” Baltacha said afterwards. “It was a great experience for me to play the world No 2. All credit to Safina. I think she played really well today. It was difficult because I don't play top 10 every week. I knew for me to get anywhere near her, I'd have to play very, very well and she put a lot of pressure on me out there today, especially on my serve. I knew if I didn't get the first serve in that she would be all over my second serve.
“But I've got to look in a very positive way. I put myself into a great situation. I've made the third round this week. I earned my place on Rod Laver today to play Safina, so I'm really proud of that.”