In sports, it is often said that “speed kills.” While few people would doubt the truth of that statement, it takes more than raw footspeed or pure velocity to rise to the top of the heap in professional tennis. Dinara Safina showed why on Thursday afternoon in Paris, and that’s why the world’s top-ranked female moved within one win of the championship that would validate her place atop the sport.
Using rolled crosscourt backhands, an occasional moonball, and even a backhand drop shot, the cagey Safina–all grown up after years of learning on the WTA Tour–used her superior variety to overcome 20th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova in the semifinals of the French Open. Safina’s 6-3, 6-3 win, in 1 hour and 41 minutes, moves the No. 1 seed into the finals at Roland Garros for the second straight year.
Cibulkova–playing in her first-ever slam semifinal–acquitted herself quite well. The Slovakian used above-average court coverage to take the ball early and pepper Safina with flat, piercing groundstrokes that robbed the Russian of time. Before anyone’s seat was warm at Court Philippe Chatrier, the underdog grabbed a quick 2-0 lead, and forced Safina to bring her best stuff to the stadium.
It wouldn’t take long for the top seed to do just that.
Blitzed by Cibulkova’s energy and pace, Safina began to put some air under her own shots. Using more topspin, slice and touch from all corners of the court, Safina prevented Cibulkova from hitting groundstrokes with a maximum amount of comfort, and occasionally crafted some beautiful winners that fueled a first-set comeback. Safina won three straight games to take a 3-2 lead, and then produced one of the best shots of the match to gain an upper hand.
Cibulkova, serving at 2-3 and 40-15, lost three straight points to give Safina a chance to break. The Russian pounced on the opportunity by surprising Cibulkova with a perfectly executed backhand drop shot to the ad court side. Disorganized and off balance just moments earlier, the top seed had broken for a 4-2 advantage. The continued use of crafty medium-pace shots–including a knifed slice backhand at 5-3, 30-15–enabled Safina to tuck away the first set and stack the deck against her opponent.
As the second set unfolded, Cibulkova still retrieved most of what Safina threw her way, but not with the same level of conviction or clarity that marked the first two games of the match. Safina struggled mightily with her serve, coughing up 7 double faults on the afternoon, but the world No. 1 repeatedly fought off break points with an effective wide kick serve to the ad court. Safina’s serving mirrored her larger overall performance on Thursday: The Russian struggled to find her form, but was always able to right the ship on break points (as both a server and receiver) and other important occasions. The No. 1 seed broke for a 3-2 lead and maintained that advantage through the remainder of the set.
Cibulkova’s play was, in a real sense, the opposite of Safina’s: The Slovakian–who played well enough for a No. 20 seed, but not enough to knock off No. 1– gained 30-15 and 40-15 leads in many games. However, the 20-year-old’s level of quality declined under pressure, particularly at net and on her return of serve. When Safina rolled one last crosscourt backhand to the ad court on match point, Cibulkova could only send the ball into the net, and now, Marat Safin’s younger sister has a chance to get it right at Roland Garros.
Last year, Dinara Safina lost to Ana Ivanovic in the French Open final. If she can learn from that painful experience, the No. 1 player in women’s tennis would finally and fully justify the ranking that has hovered over her head for so long. With one more match win on Court Chatrier, Safina can turn what has been a source of torment into a legitimate reward worthy of her achievements.
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