PARIS — Dinara Safina wore the face of a woman who had just watched her home burn down. And she had forgotten to insure it. Or maybe she let the kids play with matches.
Well, a tennis court is pretty much Dinara’s home, and none is more desirable to a European than Roland Garros’s primary clay rectangle where she, the planet’s No. 1, went down in flames trying to win the French Open Sunday. She lit the last match herself, double faulting on championship point while the other Russian in the uneven drama, Svetlana Kuznetsova, kept a straight face at becaming champion, 6-4, 6-2. It took 73 unenthralling minutes.
“On the first fault,” Koozy recalls, “I said to myself, Oh, God she’s so nervous.” Then the second ball struck the tape and bounced into the alley. ”Oh my God, double fault. I turned away and did smile at my friends, and did this [crossing herself] because I believe God helped me. But I respect Dinara too much to smile in her face then. .” So she retained the sober look during the trophy presentation.
Safina and Kuznetsova, both 23, have grown up playing against each other, and upholding their towns, Moscow and St. Petersburg, in a communities rivalry as fierce as Boston and New York. Muscovite Safina holds an 8-6 edge as a pro now, and has gone up to No. 1 while her big brother, Marat Safin, has slid down from that eminence of 2000 to a current No. 20. A remarkable household indeed. The Sisters Williams have both been No. 1, but never had a sister-brother climbed so high.
However, not many people are happy with Dinara as No. 1 because she has never won a major (big bro holds two). Moreover, given the opportunity, she has been humbled in this final a year ago by the gorgeous Serb, Ana Ivanovic, by Serena in the Australian final this year, and now — mostly by herself with seven double faults and 22 errors. (The scorekeeper was kindly; she had many more.) Though Safina won her first six matches on the loss of one set, she appears to have finalitis.
Serving for the first set at 5-3, the champ-to-be was overtaken by her infamous Koozy Quivers, and blew the game in four points. It didn’t matter because Safina’s nerves were even more tightly strung. ”I was desperately trying to get my game going,” Dinara says, “but I lost myself.”
The quivers at the wrong places, nearly costing Koozy previous victories here over Serena and Samantha Stosur, were quickly bolted down, and the robust Kuznetsova began banging winners.
”I was calm. I can’t explain it. It was a similar feeling when I won the U.S. Open .” A nifty inside out forehand return positioned her at set point which she took with a splendid double-barreled backhand.
Safina hung on to 2-2 in the second, but that was the end. The full house crowd of 14,845 tried to snap her back to life with fast-handclapping. Then the “wave”, a fans’ tactic that revitalized Gaston Gaudio in 2004. He rose from two sets down to beat Guillermo Coria in the all-Argentine final. Nothing worked, neither for strait-jacketed Dinara nor the customers who hoped for more from her. But it was as grim as the overhead of charcoal clouds, cold as Dinara’s game, 55 degrees.
Meanwhile No. 7 Koozy outmaneuvered her countrywoman, attacking with deep groundies, profitably-used volleys and drop shots, looking as though she should be No. 1. (Blame Medusa, the WTA Tour’s dizzy computer, for the fact that Safina keeps the top ranking.)
”I’ve had troubles playing Dinara, but this was the most important match we’ve played, so I’m happy.” She goes up to No. 5, and will be a candidate for the Hall of Fame someday with her two majors.
She also had troubles in patches between her two major successes, plummeting to No. 18 in 2005. She thought of quitting, and guess who talked her out of it? Dinara’s brother, Marat.
One of the first Russians to play the game was the scribbler Tolstoy. He would have loved a totally Russian final, and these two pleasant women, no matter how they played. He might have said yesterday that Kuznetsova was war, and Safina too peaceful.