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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Preview: V. Williams v Safina

Photo Titled Safina fired up
Dinara Safina getting fired up on Centre Court during her quarter-final against Sabine Lisicki.

It is not often that a player ranked number one in the world, who is also the number one seed, goes into a Grand Slam semi-final as the out-and-out underdog. Such is the case for Dinara Safina, when she faces the defending champion Venus Williams for a place in Saturday’s Wimbledon final.

One glance at the background statistics is enough to clarify the reason why. Williams, now 29, has seven Slam titles to her name, including five on the lawns of the All England Club. She has appeared in seven previous Wimbledon semi-finals and won all of them. Not only has she not dropped a set so far this Wimbledon, she has not dropped a set here since the third round in 2007, putting her currently on 32 consecutive sets won.

She is, of course on this surface, serving faster than Safina and winning more of her first serve points. She has served more aces and far fewer double faults.

All that makes tough reading for 23-year-old Safina, who is struggling with the unwanted fact of being world number one at a time when she has yet to win a Grand Slam title – although this year she has been runner-up in both Slams to date.

The good news for the Russian is that she cannot be dethroned from that number one spot when the new rankings come out next Monday, no matter what happens between now and then. But by making the semi-final here she is carving out new territory, having never even ventured into the second week before. Both her last two rounds were tough three-setters, and to those who have watched her play it has seemed as if she is desperately trying to talk herself into a convincing mindset with every stroke of the ball.

“I have never got so far here before so I’m happy,” insisted Safina. “I’m taking one match at a time and at the moment it’s working.”

But Safina needs something extraordinary to happen for it to continue working against Venus. She trails 2-1 in their career encounters to date, all of which have taken place in the last year. But she can take heart from the fact that she beat Williams in their most recent encounter, in Rome on clay this spring.

“This is definitely Venus’s best surface,” acknowledged Safina. “She loves playing here. I have nothing to lose. I want to go and play the way I can play. I beat her in Rome so I know what she’s doing, I know her weapons. I have my weapons too. I cannot have a slow start with her because here it’s so fast. So I have to really go on court pumped from the first point. I’m still learning. I still have room to improve.”

She will especially have to improve her double fault count. Safina herself said she served “250” in her quarter-final against Sabine Lisicki, although it was actually 15. But Venus has delivered just 10 throughout the entire tournament. Yet for all but her first round match Williams has played with a heavy strapping on her left knee – the one she pushes off during service – and has been cagey answering questions about it, careful to give away little about the precise problem and how it is affecting her. Judging by her performances, the answer to that query is not at all.

“Do I feel invincible here?” smiled Venus. “I’d like to say yes, but I really do work at it. Against Safina, all I can predict is more of the same stuff I’ve been doing. Just very aggressive. I think she definitely plays aggressively, tries to move forward when she can, and also plays good defence and tries to take advantage of serving well when she can.

"She definitely has a good mix of both aggressive and defensive games, and that’s a good balance. I do have strategy. Maybe it doesn’t look like it, but I think that’s my secret weapon – that it doesn’t look like I’m thinking, but I am.”

It was put to Venus that on paper the number one seed should be favourite, making her the underdog. So is that how she feels?

“She [Safina] has top ranking but I have more experience in this tournament and more success,” replied Venus. “When I go out there I’m going to feel like I want to make it happen on my side of the net.”

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