Safina must dictate versus Serena

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Serena Williams made a statement from the outset of the Australian Open, looking fit and resolute. Despite a few hiccups, she has not disappointed, dropping only a solitary set, in her quarterfinal match versus Svetlana Kuznetsova. With a title, Serena would join four others in the double-digit Grand Slam club, further cementing her place in the pantheon of all-time greats.

Dinara Safina, ostensibly an overwhelming underdog, has matured dramatically in the last year. She has set aside her sometimes irrational comportment for consistently stellar results and is hungry for a maiden major. A title for Safina wouldn't mark the first time a young ball-bashing Russian upset Serena on the grand stage. In 2004, upstart Maria Sharapova shocked the heavily favored American in the Wimbledon final.

And for a little gravy, it will be a winner-take-all final to assume the world No. 1 ranking. So who wins? Sandra Harwitt and Kamakshi Tandon state their cases.

It's almost as if the script for this year's Australian Open was preordained: Serena Williams arrived destined to win the title.

After all, she has won the last three odd-year Australian Opens. So why not her fourth Australian Open title in 2009?

Serena is an oddity as an athlete because she doesn't always take advantage of her incredible talents, often becoming distracted by outside interests. Hence, her spotty record at the Grand Slams; she should have ownership of more than nine Grand Slam titles.

That said, when Williams sets her mind to achieve, it's nearly impossible to stand in her way. That truth will leave her finals opponent, Dinara Safina, in quite a pickle.

Safina has developed into quite the talent by improving her game and learning to keep her head. But a focused Williams is the best and smartest player in the game. The power of her shots, the sting of her serve and her steely stare unnerves adversaries. Those weapons unnerved Safina in five of their six career matches.

Even when Williams isn't playing exquisite tennis, she can grind out a match if she's focused. During a number of matches at this Australian Open, players assumed they had the better of her, only to find themselves packing their own suitcases.

Take Victoria Azarenka. She was so impressive in winning the first set of their fourth-round match that the media were poised to craft Williams' 2009 Australian Open obituary. But Williams persevered and Azarenka acquiesced to illness.

Then, in the quarterfinals, Williams succumbed to the scorching summer sun and Svetlana Kuznetsova in the first set. Luck, however, was on Williams' side when tournament officials closed the arena roof, lifting her spirits while taking Kuznetsova out of her game.

By the time Williams encountered Elena Dementieva in the semifinals, she was pitch perfect. She reduced Dementieva -- the hottest player on tour, with two titles on the year -- to an also-ran.

Williams is the harshest critic of her game when in poor form. And she has a healthy ego when in top form. Williams will be singing her own praises while hoisting her 10th career Grand Slam title on Saturday.

-- Sandra Harwitt


Dinara Safina says she gets all teary whenever she watches a tape of big brother Marat Safin winning the Australian Open in 2005.

But when it comes to her matchup against Serena Williams in this year's women's final, Safina would be better off digging out a tape of Safin's victory over Pete Sampras in the 2000 U.S. Open.

Just like Safina now, her brother was the underdog in that match, facing an older, more experienced opponent with a more intimidating serve than his own. But Safin came out fearlessly and went for all his shots and was rewarded by seeing them all hit their mark.

And that's exactly what Safina will have to do if she wants to beat Williams on Saturday. In this battle between two of tennis' most famous younger sisters, Williams has the edge in serve, foot speed and experience, so Safina will not want to get down early or be on the run during rallies.

That means going for the first strike at every opportunity and not allowing Williams to stand in the middle of the court and dictate rallies.

This kind of aggressiveness always is Safina's goal, but she sometimes has trouble following through. Remember her self-flogging after coming from two breaks down to defeat Cornet in the fourth round?

"I'm telling myself, 'Hit the ball,' and just arm doesn't go because my mind is just stupid," she raged, looking the very picture of Marat. "Somebody [should] just smack me so hard in my head that something shakes finally and I put the cables together."

But she was finally happy after a strong performance against Zvonareva in the semis: "Today I can say I really played against my opponent and not against myself."

If she comes out playing at her semifinal level and Williams is a bit patchy, as she was against Dementieva, there is every chance Safina can seize the initiative and barrel through to her first Grand Slam title.

-- Kamakshi Tandon