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 July 31, 2002 | 1302 IST

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Safina steps out of brother's shadow

Until now, she was known only as the younger sister of former U.S. Open champion Marat Safin.

But after winning her first WTA tour title -- the $300,000 Polish Open in Sopot at the weekend -- Dinara Safina has finally emerged from the shadow of her big brother.

The 16-year-old Muscovite became the youngest Russian to win a WTA event.

Safina has now done something that Anna Kournikova -- the most glamorous and famous Russian woman player on the circuit -- has failed to achieve despite attracting millions of dollars in endorsements and sponsorship deals -- win a singles title.

In Sopot, Safina won eight straight matches, including three just to qualify for the main draw, beating 24th-ranked Swiss Patty Schnyder in the process to secure the $50,000 first prize -- by far the biggest of her still unfolding career.

After beating sixth-seeded Henrieta Nagyova in the final when the Slovak retired injured at 6-3 4-0 down, the first thing Dinara did was to call Marat to boast about her victory.

"He often bought me gifts after he won tournaments," Safina told Reuters in a telephone interview from the Spanish city of Valencia where she spends most of her time between tournaments.

"So now after telling him that I won, I have to think what to give him as a present. He already has many things he needs, so I must really think hard to make it a lasting memory."

Dinara now boasts a better record this year than Marat.

But Safina, who often sought her brother's advice in the past, said she had too much respect for Marat to try to give him advice about tennis.

"Oh no, I wouldn't dare teach or even tell him what to do," she said. "I'm his biggest fan and I still look up to him tennis-wise. I think it's just a matter of time before he starts winning again."

After taking seven titles -- the most on the ATP Tour -- in 2000 and three more the following year, Safin, 22, has been without a win so far this year despite coming close on several occasions.


Safina's win propelled her into the world top 100 for the first time but, because of her age, she is still restricted to playing only 10 senior tournaments in a calendar year.

"We really have to pick and choose (tournaments) to make the most of it," said Safina's mother and coach, Rauza Islanova.

"She'll play in the U.S. Open next and because she is in the top 100 now she won't have to play qualifiers."

Islanova, herself a top-10 player in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 70s, said her daughter would no longer play junior tournaments.

"It doesn't make much sense now. Junior tennis is a completely different game and it's hard to adjust, switching from one to the other," she said.

"Besides, after reaching the Wimbledon girls' final last year, Dinara has little to gain from playing junior events now.

"I think it would be better if she spent her time practising at the tennis academy in Valencia," Islanova added.

"She needs to gain more power, work on her foot movement and quickness in order to challenge the world's top players."

But Islanova cautioned against expecting too much too soon from her daughter.

"The Sopot win was a huge morale-booster for Dinara but obviously she is not yet ready to tackle dominant players like the Williams sisters or (Jennifer) Capriati on a daily basis.

"But we're not in a rush (for success). It's not like we have set a time for Dinara to move into the top 100 this year and into the top 50 or 40 next year," Islanova said. "Actually, I think she is already a bit ahead of what was expected of her."


Islanova hopes to see her daughter develop into a good all-round player.

"Dinara grew up playing on clay in Valencia but she is also quite good on a faster surfaces and after playing in the Wimbledon final last year she really likes grass," she said.

"I also hope that she will stop growing. I think being 182 centimetres tall is good enough for a female tennis player and she has good coordination for her height. If she keeps growing it could be a bit problematic to have the same mobility."

A bigger problem for Safina, according to her mother, is to juggle tennis and schoolwork.

"Of course, she can't have a normal, day-to-day schedule like any 16-year-old has, so she is taking correspondence courses at a Moscow school," Islanova said.

"She'll be entering 11th grade and she will take her exams when we come back after the U.S. Open in early September.

"Tennis is her top priority but she is doing fine in school as well. She is fluent in two languages, Spanish and Russian, and is also learning English at the moment."

Money, at least, is not a problem. Safina stands to earn a lot more from prize money and endorsements in the near future. Like her brother, she already has a long-term deal with sportswear company Adidas.

"In the past, it was Marat who mostly sponsored her tennis career but now Dinara can afford to pay her coaches and even brings home some money," Islanova said.

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