Commentary

Will Safina finally rise to the occasion?

Originally Published: June 30, 2009
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- As the Williams sisters continue their stately, seemingly inevitable march toward the Wimbledon final, Dinara Safina finds herself, delightfully, lost in the sauce.

The 23-year-old Russian is ranked No. 1 in the world, seeded first here at the All England Club and has won more matches (42) than any other woman, but all eyes are on Venus and Serena, who are each a single win away from meeting in a Grand Slam final for the 12th time.

In her three trips under the powerful microscope of tennis majors, Safina has undeniably shrunk. She lost in straights sets at the 2008 French Open (to Ana Ivanovic), at this year's Australian Open (to Serena Williams) and several weeks ago at Roland Garros (to Svetlana Kuznetsova). With a victory over Venus Williams in Thursday's semifinal, Safina would earn the marvelous opportunity to wash away those miserable failures.

On Tuesday, Safina rallied to defeat 19-year-old Sabine Lisicki 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-1 while Venus Williams defeated Agnieszka Radwanska 6-1, 6-2 in 68 minutes.

The other semifinal will feature Serena Williams, a 6-2, 6-3 winner over Victoria Azarenka, against Elena Dementieva, who beat Francesca Schiavone 6-2, 6-2.

And so the four top seeds, the four highest-ranked players in the world, are in the final four. Memo to the two Russians who have designs on beating the Sisters Williams: Venus and Serena lost a combined eight games on Tuesday.

"[Venus] loves playing here in Wimbledon," Safina said. "I have nothing to lose. I know what she's doing. I know her weapons. I have my weapons.

"So I just want to go out there, play my best, and let's see."

The one previous meeting between Safina and Lisicki was in the 2008 Australian Open. Lisicki, a qualifier ranked No. 194 in the world, stunned Safina in the first round. When Lisicki prevailed in Tuesday's first-set tiebreaker, it looked as though history might repeat itself.

Safina was a mess, indiscriminately spraying forehands and backhands all over the place. Nevertheless, she saved two set points on errors by Lisicki, and narrowed the count to 5-6. And then Safina gave the set away with a horrific double fault, hitting her second serve a foot beyond the service line.

In a fit of fury reminiscent of her older brother, Marat, Safina slammed her racket to the grass and it cracked under the pressure. Maybe that tantrum was just what she needed.

Safina's coach, Zeljko Krajan, said later that he didn't think the racket slam was the turning point, but admitted that she started playing better.

"She showed the fighting spirit -- I wish she would show it more often," Krajan said. "She was too passive. She played better against Amelie [Mauresmo] in her last match."

Lisicki essentially gave away the second set when she double-faulted in the seventh game. Her nerves started to fray and even though she out-aced Safina 12-0, Lisicki completely melted down in the third. Her serve was broken immediately by Safina, and when she failed to convert three break points in the subsequent game, it was over.

Just as Azarenka, who is also 19, arrived earlier this year when she won in Miami, Lisicki's first Grand Slam quarterfinal marks her as a rising star.

"She knows one way to play," said her coach, Nick Bollettieri in Bradenton, Fla., "and that's knock the crap out of the ball. Sometimes you'll wish she would be more intelligent but, at 19, she'll learn what to do. If you pull it back and start making her too conservative, she may never get it back."

Indeed, at 5-foot-10, 154 pounds, Lisicki hits the ball tremendously hard. She leads all women with 41 aces through five matches and the average speed of her first serve was 110 mph, 10 faster than Safina.

"She hits the ball flat," Bollettieri said, "and she's a big girl that moves really well. She hits the ball a little bit like [Lindsay] Davenport. All she needs is a little more experience."

Experience -- and power -- is the advantage the Williams sisters have on the Russians. They have won seven Wimbledon titles, while Safina and Dementieva have yet to win a single Grand Slam.

Meanwhile, Venus is playing like someone looking for her third consecutive Wimbledon title. She was dominant against Radwanska, losing only three games. Later, she was asked if she felt invincible on the grass at the All England Club.

[+] EnlargeVenus Williams
AP Photo/Kirsty WigglesworthVenus Williams has not lost more than four games in a single set through five rounds.

"I do a lot of good things right," Venus said. "That first set for me was really almost perfect. The second set I think I got a little bit impatient the first couple of games. Do I feel invincible? I'd like to say yes, but I really do work at it."

With Safina ranked No. 1, does Venus feel like the underdog?

"When I go out there, I'm going to, of course, feel like I want to make it happen on my side of the net," Venus said. "She has the top ranking, but I have more the experience in this tournament and more success. I've been playing a little longer.

"So if she keeps playing longer, too, then maybe she has the opportunity to have lots of success here, too."

That opportunity comes on Thursday. With a win over Venus, Safina has a chance to climb out of that deep, black hole she has created for herself.

When asked if she was working on her mental game, Safina said, "If I would work, I would not serve 250 double faults today, because it's just my brain sometimes doesn't do the things that I have to do."

Krajan said the match would be over early if Safina plays like she did against Lisicki.

"She must come forward," Krajan noted, "play close to the line and hit the ball harder than Venus. She needs to play with the power that she has. If she does this, she can win."

The question remains: Does Safina herself believe that?

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.