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Monday, June 1, 2009
Updated: June 3, 2:08 AM ET
Safina's rise just a matter of time

By Bonnie D. Ford
ESPN.com

PARIS -- Dinara Safina has the look of a Grand Slam champion every which way but on paper.

Long confined by her own fragile psyche, lost in the WTA's swarm of Russian queen bees and pigeonholed as the little sister of an iconic ATP star, Safina has gone to work at Roland Garros like a type A chief executive. Her profit report through the round of 16: Eight sets won, none lost; four sets won at love; a total of five games dropped; an average match time of 59 minutes.

But the most important number attached to Safina's name is No. 1, the ranking she has held since April 20 -- a week before she turned 23. It's unusual for a player to ascend to that summit without a Slam title, but Safina seems fated to do things differently and instead has been growing into her stature.

"How badly does she want to prove she's a true No. 1?" ESPN analyst Mary Carillo asked rhetorically. "Yes, she's played shaky in two major finals. She clearly wasn't ready to win here last year, and she wasn't ready to win in Australia. I think she's going to be a lot more comfortable trying to win here."

Safina suffered from rookie-finalist paralysis in Paris last year against Ana Ivanovic, and said she felt smothered by expectations in January as she fought through the Australian Open draw and wound up squaring off against Serena Williams for the title, with the top ranking on the line as well.

"It was too much pressure for me," Safina said with her accustomed quiet candor after crushing France's Aravane Rezai in the fourth round. "It was always going on the court not to lose a match, and of course it's always difficult to play when you step on the court and you're afraid of losing. Then you don't play even your game. So I think once I go to No. 1 spot, I took it out of my shoulders. Like, OK, I'm there where I wanted to be."

It's a unique way to get into a comfort zone, but it seems to have worked. Safina reached the finals of all three tournaments she played leading up to the French Open and won in Rome and Madrid.

Her bulldozer's progress through the dirt at Roland Garros is notable, even given the soft nature of early competition in the women's draw. If Safina were to win her quarterfinal against Victoria Azarenka in lopsided fashion -- an admittedly more difficult task than she has had here so far -- she has a chance to be part of an elite group.

Mary Pierce, the 1994 French Open champion, holds the record for fewest games dropped through the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam, with six; behind her are Martina Navratilova (11, at the '89 U.S. Open), Steffi Graf (11, at the '88 French Open) and Monica Seles (11, at the '96 U.S. Open).

Does Safina think she belongs in that company? If on-court comportment tells the story, the answer is yes. In the past, she was more apt to fall on her own sword when she should have been goring her opponents, but now Safina has been striding purposefully along the baseline between points, eyes locked on the prize. She mutters perhaps a word or two to pump herself up instead of pummeling herself (and pulverizing her racket) with a long, loud diatribe.

"I'm trying to be very, I mean, professional, how you say?" Safina said. "I think this is something new in me, that before I would maybe just go out there and play and then waste my energy.

"I would still win a match, but like 6-4, 6-4. Then of course by the end of, you know, the second week, you already spend, like, much more time [on the court]. Now I have a match, I try to focus, and every point is important. No free points. No stupid mistakes."

No. 2 Serena Williams made headlines a few weeks ago by saying she was the "real" No. 1. But rankings aren't based on virtual reality -- they're based on week-in, week-out results (and the more weeks, the stronger the case, by the way). A final between those two women would be tennis's version of the BCS Championship.

Safina doesn't seem to have been knocked off stride by the comments. She has spent her entire career trying to escape the shadows cast by others, and she's no longer blinded when the spotlight shines on her. "At the end of the day," she said, "I still got to where I wanted to be: No. 1. Doesn't matter, fast or slow. I'm there."

Said Carillo: "I think it's time we appreciate that she's been doing exactly what she should do to be No. 1," Carillo said. "She deserves a little piece of turf that's all hers."

Or red earth.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.