Little sister Safina stepping up

MELBOURNE, Australia -- In the frequently high school atmosphere of the pro tennis circuit, Marat Safin could be cast as the popular, athletic senior who made the girls swoon and to whom everything came easily.

Dinara Safina was the awkward young freshman, friendly and earnest but never quite able to live up to the image of her big brother.

How things have changed.

Safina, who has been on a tear since unexpectedly winning the Tier I event in Berlin last May, comes into the Australian Open as the No. 3 seed and one of the favorites. Her skin has cleared up, she is sporting a darker hair color, and the successes are mounting. Now, the spotlight has turned her way.

"Before, really, I was known as Marat's sister, nothing else," she said after winning her second-round match in three sets on Wednesday. "Now when I practice there is more people standing watching me. I get a better court. I'm not anymore Marat's sister."

"So I prefer to be in this case than last year, you know," she added with a grin.

As for Marat, he's philosophical about his transition to "Dinara's brother." He remains the more successful of the two, having won two Grand Slams while Safin has reached only one final, at last year's French Open.

But having announced that this will be his last year on the circuit, Safin is aware that he has been superseded in both the sibling and tennis pecking orders.

"It's OK, I don't mind," Safin said. "There's a lot of new players coming in. They are much younger, more hungry. Probably, they have much more confidence than me, which is normal. I'm 28, 29 going to be soon.

"It's a little bit tougher to compete against them because they're just full of confidence and they're hungry. They're going for it. They're not scared."

Safin was referring to the likes of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, but he might as well have been describing the mindset of his 22-year-old sister. While in previous years she tended to speak of "patience, trying 100 percent and luck," there is now only one refrain in her playing vocabulary: being aggressive and going for her shots.

Safina said that was the difference between the first set and final two sets of her 6-7, 6-3, 6-0 victory over Ekaterina Makarova, and she believes it is always the difference between her wins and losses.

"No," Safina replied when asked if she had ever lost a match being too aggressive. "I'm better to lose the match being aggressive than lose the match being passive. Whenever I'm passive, I lose. That's what happens every time. I lost the tiebreak because I was too passive."

It's a philosophy with which she and coach Zeljko Krajan are in complete agreement, and not even her adored big brother's influence will move her. Not even when they're sharing a court, as Safin discovered when he and Safina played mixed doubles together for the first time in the Hopman Cup mixed team competition earlier this month.

"It's fun," Safina said of the experience, glad to get the chance before Safin hangs up his racket. "It was my first time and, well, with everything it's the last time that we play together, so it was nice that I had a chance to do it."

Though Safin was always bound to be "the boss" on court -- the psychological edge of being the older sibling is never lost -- Safina did not let herself get pushed around during their matches. "He can play one way the ball and I cannot play this way. I have only my way of play. So it's a little bit different, you know," she said. "I would go for a winner -- he goes, 'Why you go for the winner? You have to push it there.' And I cannot just push it. Either I go [for a winner], or I don't go for this shot."

There's no arguing with success, so Safin is happy to let his sister do things her own way. Gone are the times when he might criticize Safina's approach in public or counsel her in private. "I think there's enough people to worry about her career," he said with a shrug. "She doesn't need me there. She knows what to do. She's a grown-up. She's a professional. She's doing her job. She's doing quite well."

Their mother, Raouza Islanova, taught tennis in Russia and was the childhood coach of fellow pro Elena Dementieva. Dementieva has been pleased to see Safina taking her own path to tennis success.

"They're very different. Marat, he gets everything so easily and she was working so hard for all these results," Dementieva said. "I just have a lot for respect for her because it's nice to see her growing up and improving her game and working so hard. I think it's never easy to be in the shadow of your big brother like Marat, but she really deserves all the results that she's got."

Safin's looming retirement will soon mean the end of all the sibling comparisons and contrasts, but Safina is now more than ready to stand on her own feet.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.