- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 6, 2009

PARIS | Thinner, mentally tougher and No. 1 in the rankings, Dinara Safina feels ready to win her first Grand Slam title.

The top-seeded Safina is half of the third all-Russian major championship match. She needs to beat Svetlana Kuznetsova in Saturday’s French Open final to claim one of the four biggest titles in tennis.

“It’s one step easier because I’m already No. 1, so nobody can take it away from me,” Safina said Friday, referring to her losses to Serena Williams in this year’s Australian Open final and to Ana Ivanovic in the 2008 French Open final. “Just one more step I need to do.”

Safina took over as the top-ranked player in April, and she has reached the final in the four tournaments she has played, all on clay. In her 21 matches since then, she has lost only once - to Kuznetsova.

She credits much of that rise to her coach, Zeljko Krajan.

“He had to start with everything from zero,” Safina said. “First, it was believe, and then I started to play better. And then I was overweight. He was like, ‘OK, now if you want to improve, you have to lose weight.’ So we started to work on [that], and I lost my weight.

“He’s like, ‘OK, now the third part is mentally. In the tough moments you’re breaking down, so we have to improve mentally.’ ”

Her inner toughness came through in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros. After dominating four straight opponents - losing only five games in the first four rounds - Safina lost the first set to Victoria Azarenka 6-1. But in the semifinals, she was back to her dominating self after a slight blip at the start, beating Dominika Cibulkova 6-3, 6-3.

Now it’s time for a rematch against Kuznetsova, the 2004 U.S. Open champion, who has been a friend and rival since their days as juniors.

“She was a funny girl. I remember her coming to the match with a two-liter Pepsi,” Safina said. “I mean, you would look at her, and it was like, ‘No way she can be one day like winning [a] Grand Slam.’

“But then she moved to Spain and she changed completely. She became much more professional.”

The two have met twice on clay this year, with Kuznetsova winning the title in Stuttgart, Germany, and Safina doing the same in Rome.

“It was definitely two different matches,” said Kuznetsova, who is 4-7 overall against Safina. “In Stuttgart I was a little bit fresher. I played good, and I [took] advantage of my speed and I was moving Dinara around well. In Rome, I think Dinara played much better, but I played worse.”

Kuznetsova was part of the second all-Russian Grand Slam final, beating Elena Dementieva at the 2004 U.S. Open. Earlier that year, Dementieva lost to Anastasia Myskina in the French Open final.

“I have less pressure,” Kuznetsova said. “She’s No. 1. She has to win it, not me. I just want to go out there and enjoy it.”

Safina and her brother Marat Safin are the only sister and brother to have been ranked No. 1 in tennis. Safin has won two Grand Slam titles, but he wasn’t offering any new advice to his younger sister ahead of Saturday’s match.

“I don’t think he’s going to send me something,” Safina said. “I had enough advice from him.”

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