All-Russian championship set

Thursday, June 4, 2009 12:19 PM
Last updated 5:15 PM
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PARIS – Dinara Safina shanked shots, endured a flurry of double-faults, screamed profanities at herself and still advanced to the French Open final.

The combustible Russian beat Dominika Cibulkova, of Slovakia, 6-3, 6-3 in the semifinals today and needs one more win for her first Grand Slam title.

Safina, ranked No. 1, won despite erratic play that included seven double-faults. Twice in one game, her shots landed short of the net.

“It wasn’t an easy match,” she said. “I was nervous at the beginning because I was eager for this win.”

Safina was runner-up to Ana Ivanovic last year at Roland Garros, and lost this year’s Australian Open final to Serena Williams. Her opponent Saturday will be the Svetlana Kuznetsova, of Russia. Kuznetsova defeated Samantha Stosur, of Australia, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3.

Kuznetsova, seeded seventh, looked fresh 24 hours after beating Serena Williams in a grueling quarterfinal. Kuznetsova won her only major title at the 2004 U.S. Open and reached the French Open final in 2006, when she lost to Justine Henin.

The last all-Russian final at Roland Garros was in 2004 when Anastasia Myskina beat Elena Dementieva.

“I really want to win this tournament,” Safina said. “I had a very good experience last year, and I hope to do better this year. I still have a match to play, and I will give everything I’ve got.”

In the men’s semifinals Friday, Roger Federer will seek to move a step closer to a career Grand Slam and 14th major title, which would tie Pete Sampras’ record. He’s 5-0 against his opponent, towering Argentine Juan Martin del Potro.

No. 23-seeded Robin Soderling will try to continue his improbable run against No. 12 Fernando Gonzalez. Soderling reached beyond the third round at a Grand Slam tournament for the first time, while Gonzalez is the first Chilean since 1960 to advance to the Roland Garros semifinals.

Safina’s ranking has drawn criticism because she has yet to win a major championship. But in the four tournaments since she climbed to No. 1 in April, she’s 20-1 with two titles, a runner-up finish and the berth in the French Open final.

“Since I became No. 1, I’m playing finals and winning the titles,” she said. “So how much more proof I need to give the people that I think I deserve that spot?”

Her brother, Marat Safin, is a former No. 1 and two-time Grand Slam champion.

The family’s notorious temper was evident in the semifinal. At least twice Safina screamed a vulgarity at herself in English that TV microphones picked up, and an announcer apologized to the European audience.

Her language was cleaner when she shanked a backhand into the dirt at her feet.

“That was a great shot,” she said.

Later in the same game, Safina misfired so badly on a first serve that she drove the ball into the clay in front of the net. She held anyway for a 4-2 lead in the second set.

“I didn’t play aggressive,” she said. “I have to be much more dominant on the court.”

Safina kissed the corner with a forehand winner to reach match point and closed out the victory when Cibulkova put a backhand in the net.

The match was played from behind the baseline, and it was into the seventh game before either played attempted a volley. The 5-foot-3 Cibulkova was at a disadvantage in rallies because she often had to hit the ball above eye level, while high-kicking shots were right in the 5-11½ Safina’s wheelhouse.

“I was planning to serve better, and to make pressure with the return,” Cibulkova said. “But today I was just standing so, so far from the baseline, and I couldn’t do anything.”

On a sunny, cool afternoon, Safina started slowly. She fell behind 2-love, then began to find the range and won five consecutive games.

She struggled to close out the set, sailing returns long on three successive set points, but converted on the fourth try with a booming forehand.

A lob winner over Cibulkova helped Safina earn the first break of the second set for a 3-2 lead, and she closed out the win despite some fitful moments. Safina finished with 24 winners, while her opponent had 11 winners and 21 unforced errors.


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