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Thursday, January 29, 2009
These younger sisters fine on their own

By Bonnie D. Ford

MELBOURNE, Australia -- The 2009 Australian Open final coincidentally features two younger siblings of famous players, but subtitling it with "Nobody puts Baby in a corner" doesn't really do it justice.

Both Serena Williams and Dinara Safina, who will duke it out for the championship and the WTA's No. 1 ranking Saturday, have done an admirable job of establishing distinct tennis identities.

Williams' sister Venus, 15 months her senior, is a contemporary -- simultaneously her confidante, doubles partner and her most troublesome opponent over the years. But Serena, the more sturdily built, outgoing and outwardly passionate of the two, has outstripped Venus in two quantifiable categories: Grand Slam titles (nine to seven) and prize money.

Serena's semifinal victory over Elena Dementieva bumped her career earnings to $22.7 million, making her the all-time breadwinner in women's sports. And if Williams wins Saturday evening's final, she'll become just the fifth woman in the 41-year Open era to hit double digits in Grand Slam wins, joining Margaret Court, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and Steffi Graf.

Serena Williams/Venus Williams
There is an inextricable bond between the Williams sisters, but Serena, left, is steadfast in adding more singles trophies to her shrine.

Safina, more than six years younger than brother Marat Safin, shares his talent, his self-deprecating humor and his winsome smile, but she grew up at more of a remove from him. They were separated physically when he left for Spain to train when she was 8, and psychologically when he capered to the top of the ATP rankings in 2000.

"I watched my brother on TV winning this tournament, and even if I was to watch it now, I would have tears in my eyes," Safina said this week with her usual directness. "It is great that I can follow in his footsteps, because he was my idol and he is still my idol."

As the Russian marched toward her second Slam final of the last two seasons -- she lost to Ana Ivanovic at Roland Garros last year -- she has patiently suffered questions about her brother and their mostly close but occasionally tense relationship. She has also made it abundantly clear that she is her own woman.

When Safin won the 2000 U.S. Open, he quaffed vodka in front of a roomful of amused reporters after his press conference. Safina, who has lost 15 pounds since the middle of last year, said she rarely has so much as a glass of wine, but might allow herself some chocolate cake if she has cause to celebrate.

She communicated with her brother on his birthday last Tuesday, and he sent her a text message after she reached the final, saying "Well done." But there was no talk of a game plan for Williams.

"Nobody is allowed to give me advice except my tennis coach," Safina said. "I don't want that somebody mess up these things." In that quiet insistence, you could hear a hint of her struggle to set boundaries.

The Williamses, coached by the same two people -- their parents -- and habitual spectators of each other's big matches, have no such need. Serena said Venus routinely helps her break down matches. They couldn't have looked more intimate Friday afternoon as they consulted on strategy between points during the doubles championship match, the lights inside closed Rod Laver Arena glinting off their high cheekbones. They unleashed a barrage of ferocious volleys in the second set to win their eighth Slam as a tandem, and passed the trophy back and forth as they made their speeches. "I'd never play with anyone else," Venus said.

Distinctive as they are, it's hard to imagine one Williams continuing to play long after the other retires. That's obviously not the case with the Russians. If Safina's career continues to progress as it has in the last year, the roles set by birth order may very well be reversed. We'll never know if Safin's potential to add to his two major titles was stymied because of his knee injury or his bon vivant lifestyle, or both. But now, suddenly, the 22-year-old Safina is the one with promise stretching endlessly before her, while Safin is making noise about packing his rackets at age 29.

Since beating then-No. 1 Justine Henin on clay in Berlin last May, Safina is 54-11 with four titles. (Safina also beat Williams en route to the Berlin championship.) "All of a sudden, she felt like she belonged," ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez observed. "Then she came back from match point down twice at the French, and since then, she's gotten fitter and fitter. That's the biggest factor for her, is how tough she's making these matches physically."

Marat Safin/Dinara Safina
Despite maintaining a safe distance in their relationship, Dinara Safina aspires to be a Grand Slam champion like big brother Marat.

Safina also appears to be making inroads against her most enervating opponent, her temperament. "Most of the time, it's me against myself playing," she said. "You know, I play against me, my shadow, myself, everything against me. If one day I will play only against opponent, this will be the perfect day."

Yet her fierceness has an upside. Williams' fire is best fought with more fire, which is why her recent matches against her sister have been so intriguing. Currently, there aren't many players capable of matching her competitive intensity on a given day. When Safina's emotion is properly harnessed, it's an extra arrow in her quiver.

Despite Safina's vision of an ideal performance, the truth is that champions distinguish themselves by finding ways to win when they're not having a perfect day.

"I'm just happy to have gotten this far, at the level I was playing in the beginning of the week," said Williams, an admitted perfectionist who regards lapses in play like an infuriating chip in the polish on one of her well-tended fingernails.

"If I win, that would be great," she said. "If I lose, I'll just leave with the confidence that I can get far in a tournament when I'm not playing my best and go home and work even harder for the next time."

Neither of these players has been terribly consistent in Australia, but their skill at clambering out of competitive ravines and then stepping on the fingers of the woman behind them has gotten them to this point.

"This tournament looked like it was so wide open, and here we have the No. 2 and 3 seeds in the final," Navratilova said. "The cream really rose to the occasion.

"Serena has been practically unbeatable in these situations. But if they're both going for their shots and trying to dictate, it's going to come down to whoever's more aggressive positionally, and whoever's serving better at important times."

Fernandez agreed. "Serena's serve finally started to click, and that gives her so much freedom to go for it," she said. "Her fitness hasn't been an issue. It's just been a matter of trying to find her rhythm."

The most interesting thing Williams and Safina share at the moment is not their DNA link to another great player, but their determination to take charge -- in their lives and in the six matches they've played here so far. It sets them apart from a somewhat pallid women's field at the moment.

We can only hope that Saturday's final is played assertively on both ends of the court and that the woman who emerges as No. 1 earns it that night instead of stumbling into it by default. To paraphrase the old adage, you can't pick your family, but if you aspire to athletic greatness, you have to pick the right moments to excel.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for She can be reached at