We are in the Olympic Stadium on a beautiful day in Moscow not far from the Red Square. From here you can see the red brick towers and onion swirled domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral. The cathedral, built in the 1500’s, has survived Napoleon and Stalin – not an easy accomplishment. Napoleon tried to blow it up, unsuccessfully, because he didn’t have the technology to take it home to Paris and Stalin rejected proposals to have it destroyed to ease traffic movement in the square. A proposal that was, no doubt, a thinly veiled attempt at removing a symbol of religion situated smack dab in the path of the Red Army parade route.
The Olympic Stadium is huge and there are multiple structures within it. Throughout today’s match we hear loudspeaker announcements from tennis matches in another part of the building. It has a red, of course, indoor court with a blue apron and one remaining Russian playing on it. Dinara Safina looks a bit like Lindsay Davenport. She has the slumped shoulders of a woman who doesn’t want to scare off potential suitors with her height. When she goes for a stretch volley, she bends over like a palm tree and lowers her racket to the ground instead of bending her knees to keep her racket head up.
Safina’s brother, Marat Safin, is the talented but infuriatingly self-destructive winner of two grand slams, including this year’s Australian Open. Their mother, Rausa Islanova, also over six feet tall, coached Marat and Dinara when they were younger.
Safina took out Maria Sharapova in the previous round. Safina had that opportunity only because Anna-Lena Groenefeld sprained her ankle after she had Sharapova down 6-1, 4-2. Safina was essentially finishing off Groenefeld’s work.
This was Sharapova’s first appearance at the Kremlin Cup and first tournament event in her homeland. It has been a homecoming accompanied by a huge outpouring of appreciation from the Russian people and a state award from the government. At least she came. Nadia Petrova and Nicole Vaidisova gave up altogether choosing to play in Thailand this week instead.
Safina will play Mary Pierce in the semifinal here today. The regal Miss Pierce. She doesn’t bother walking back to the ball-person to retrieve her towel. She has the towel brought to her so that she can wipe off her racket handle and her arms and her legs and her face without having to walk too far. She regularly flicks back the first ball bounced to her without even looking at it as if to say, “Why would you even think about offering me that ball?”
She is in her own world out there on the court. She walks at her own speed, prepares to serve at her own speed and prepares to return at her own speed. This serves her well; she maintains composure in tough situations. To get to this semifinal she beat Elena Likhotseva after being down 0-6 in the third set tiebreaker. That’s six match points against her, by the way. She won eight straight points to win the tiebreaker 8-6.
The counterpoint to Pierce’s regal bearing is her fidgetiness. She’s always tugging at her shirt, adjusting her braid, squinting her eyes, reigning in a stray hair, or finding a new body part to attend to. He calm bearing seems to be a coping technique to handle to storm of nerves underneath. Whatever it is, it works. She is having the best year of her career. She’s been to two slam finals and earned just under two millions dollars so far.
I haven’t seen Safina play before and, for some reason, I assumed that she was very unlike her brother. … It turns out that she is not so different.
I haven’t seen Safina play before and, for some reason, I assumed that she was very unlike her brother. How many players are there like her brother? It turns out that she is not so different. It’s not just the strong two-handed backhand and the fast serve. She hangs in well with Pierce in the first set and gets to a tiebreaker. She serves at 2-1 then starts to unravel. At 2-2, Pierce hits a cross-court winner and Safina screams at herself in a high pitched chipmunk voice and shakes her free arm as if she is desperate with herself. She proceeds to bounce her racket on the court and smash a ball down into the court. Interestingly, she blows up when Pierce hits a winner, not when she, Safina, makes an error. She seems to maximize self-criticism by attacking herself for not getting to a shot that no one could get to. The apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree. Elena Dementieva and Anastasia Myskina recall Islanova as a hard disciplinarian who would scream and curse at her young charges on occasion.
While Safina is carrying on, Pierce wins the last six points to take the tiebreaker and first set.
Pierce has a pretty solid game plan. She serves wide or hits crosscourt then hits down the line and approaches. That’s a bit dangerous with her two-handed backhand volley. On one play she misses a volley that was reachable with a one-hander and on another she midjudges a passing shot that was within her range. She’s smart; when she gets ahead she increases her attacks.
Pierce goes up 3-0 and gets to 4-2 when Safina stages a mini-rally and gets a break point. Now Safina is smiling to her friends in her box and shrugging her shoulders as if to say, “That’s just me, furious one moment and smiling the next.” Pierce responds with a winner and two aces to hold and the match is over. Pierce wins, 7-6(2), 6-3.
Certainly you don’t want to restrain a person’s spirit. Forcing Safina to be calm would only straightjacket her. But she could develop trust in her skills. She has a serve that can keep her in any match and a backhand that’s a bludgeon. It’s interesting to see nineteen-year-old Safina play certified tour veteran Pierce. Pierce is a bundle of nerves coupled with a calm confidence that comes from experience. She plays very good tactical tennis and maintains her own rhythm regardless of the score. If Safina can hang in there long enough to develop some of these skills, she could be a very good player.