Time ripe for Safina to win first major?

PARIS -- Dinara Safina's emphatic run to the French Open final has validated her No. 1 ranking and, to an extent, stabilized what had been a very liquid hierarchy on the WTA Tour.

The question now is whether she can conquer her first Grand Slam title. With the exception of a small hiccup in the quarterfinals versus Victoria Azarenka, Safina has been nothing short of brilliant in this tournament.

Safina's opponent, compatriot Svetlana Kuznetsova, has manifested mental toughness and all-around crisp form. Her quarterfinal squeaker versus Serena Williams after succumbing to second-set nerves spoke volumes.

What fate will befall this year's Roland Garros finalists? Our tennis aficionados, Bonnie D. Ford and Greg Garber, have their says.

Safina has been here before, perched on the threshold of a Grand Slam singles title.

A year ago, she reached the final here at Roland Garros and then watched Ana Ivanovic hoist a major trophy for the first time. Four months ago, she won six matches at the Australian Open but lost to Williams in the final, a weak showing in which she won just three games.

But now, at the age of 23 -- relatively late in the scheme of elite tennis -- she will make the final step. On Saturday, she will defeat fellow Russian Kuznetsova.

In Melbourne, a victory over Williams would have given her the No. 1 ranking for the first time.

"You really want to win, and there is like double trophy -- you hold the title and you will become No. 1," Safina said Friday.

"So it's one step easier [here in Paris] because I'm already No. 1, so nobody can take it away from me. Well, just one more step I need to do."

Safina rolled through the first four rounds, losing only five games, before adversity descended on her in the form of Azarenka. A dropped set got her attention, though, and she has been perfect since, winning all four sets from Azarenka and Dominika Cibulkova.

Kuznetsova, it must be said, is playing great. She showed a lot of heart in beating Williams in the quarterfinals and Samantha Stosur in the semifinals. But Kuznetsova already has a Grand Slam title, from the 2004 U.S. Open.

It won't be easy, but Safina's hunger for that first championship will carry her.

Prediction: Safina in three.

-- Greg Garber


In a contest between two players who struggle with self-belief, who has the better chance of recovering from the inevitable mental lapse? The one with less to lose.

Safina's power game is a more all-or-nothing affair than Kuznetsova's, and so are her emotions. If Kuznetsova can get her to start rolling down that slippery slope, Safina will have a harder time keeping herself from tumbling over the cliff.

Kuznetsova began working with Russian Fed Cup coach Larisa Savchenko a few weeks ago in tacit acknowledgement that the missing link in her game is between the ears. The player has made it clear she needs moral and motivational backing more than tactical tweaking at this point.

"To my level, already, you cannot change so much,'' Kuznetsova said. "But she brings me calm, you know. For me it's very important. It's the main thing. You know, she's cool and she takes time and she never rush. She never tells me negative things. It's always positive.''

Both Kuznetsova and Safina have something to prove in regard to their competitive mettle, but Safina certainly has more on the line in terms of her exalted ranking and her 0-2 record in major finals. Kuznetsova doesn't have anyone scrutinizing whether she deserves to be No. 7 or inquiring whether her more accomplished brother will be in attendance. And she has a Grand Slam trophy, albeit five years old and on another surface.

Kuznetsova won't win on nerve alone. She will need her trusty forehand, she will need to keep Safina on the run and she will need to be at her soundest physically after two long, up-and-down matches. She's capable of doing that, but it won't be quick. This has the look of the first three-setter in a French Open final since 2001.

Prediction: Kuznetsova in three.

-- Bonnie D. Ford