For 26 weeks in 2009, Russia’s Dinara Safina was the number one ranked player in the world, holding that distinction from April 20-Oct. 11, and again from Oct. 26-Nov. 1, reaching the finals of three Grand Slam tournaments.
But towards the end of that 2009 season, a back injury became a lingering problem for Safina. It would continue to plague her through the 2010 season and into 2011, and she ended her 2011 season after reaching the Round of 32 in Madrid.
While she didn’t officially announce her retirement, it would be the last match of her professional career at only 25-years-old.
Now, Safina embarks on a new challenge and has flipped her role from player to coach, bringing her knowledge and experience to MatchPoint NYC in Brooklyn.
“It took me awhile to come to this,” Safina said of venturing into coaching. “I played my last match in 2011, and I finished studying in Russia. I’ve worked in different places, but there comes a moment when you realize you miss the game, you miss being out on court. I thought, ‘Why not share my experience with other players?’”
Following her playing career, she went back to Russia and earned a law degree and worked as the director of operations for an IT firm in her native Moscow.
But she missed being on the court.
Safina came to New York and played in the U.S. Open Champions draw of the tournament.
“I just stayed here,” she said about remaining in New York. “I love the energy. It’s a bit crazy, which reminds me of my hometown of Moscow. The energy of the people is incredible; everybody is always looking forward to the next challenge. It’s just an exciting place.”
She knew MatchPoint Co-Founder Nino Muhatasov from her time on the tour, when Muhatasov was touring with Ukrainians Alona & Kateryna Bonadrenko.
“We’ve always been in contact and always had a good friendship,” said Safina. “I told him I wanted to try coaching. We sat down and talked about it, and said ‘why not.’ I ran a preseason coaching camp with Alona Bonadrenko and it went great.”
Safina has primarily been working with Anhelina Kalinina (pictured right) since, a former U.S. Open Junior finalist and rising star. Kalinina has a career-high ranking of 148, and is looking to take her game to the next level under Safina’s guidance.
“She’s had a very good start to the year, but she has work to do,” Safina said of Kalinina, who has won tournaments in Daytona Beach and Wesley Chapel on the ITF circuit already this year. “Her expectations are high. From my experience, you have to have it in your mind that you need to work a lot. Focus on the next match. Young players can be ambitious sometimes and look too far ahead, and sometimes you have to calm them down. It’s a process. Each match is different, each practice is different. And I hope I can teach her this really quickly. But the game she has is incredible.”
Safina will join Kalinina on the road at some tournaments in the near future, and the two hope to be able to play in the U.S. Open main draw this summer. But in the meantime, they are sticking to the process and continuing to try and get better every day.
Now 30-years-old, Safina has found her niche at MatchPoint, and has no regrets about her playing career or the way it ended.
“I feel at home here,” Safina said. “The environment is great. You come in in the morning and the people at the bar are so friendly, the whole crew is so easy going. Everyone is positive. Nino is always walking around and talking to everybody in the club. I can see how much he and everyone else enjoys being here. This is like their kid and they give it all the love that they have. I look at my career in a philosophical way. I gave it 100 percent every day, and played almost 10 years as a pro. I don’t think about what could have been. Whatever was written for me in tennis was what happened. I did it 100 percent and have no regrets.”
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at email@example.com