Safina wins her battle for fitness but mind games remain

By Julian Linden

Just over a month ago, Safina's inflamed spine was aching so much she could not even hit a backhand or serve in practice and there were real doubts about whether she would be ready to compete at this month's Australian Open.

Against all her instincts, she took an extended break, and her back healed itself. Suddenly, she is in Australia and bouncing around like a baby kangaroo before the first grand slam of the year.

The 23-year-old has made three finals in the past two years, including last year's Australian Open, but lost the lot, all in straight sets.

Her consistency in getting to the finals was recognized when she held the number one ranking for half of 2009 but those three grand slam losses continue to haunt her.

By her own admission, her problems were more mental than physical and she has been refreshingly candid about succumbing to nerves on the big occasion.

"Those three mistakes in the previous finals, I just didn't put everything together," she told reporters at the Sydney International, the last major warmup before next week's Open.

"(I) just have to be myself and play my game. I think this is most important.

"That's it. Not thinking about 'this is the final' and winning, losing. Just treat it as another match."

Fortunately, her coach Zeljko Krajan did not take up the offer, although he has resorted to some unusual psychological tricks in the past to get the best out her.

And for the larger part, they have been successful.

For someone who grew up in the shadow of her more famous sibling Marat Safin, Safina has established herself as a great player in her own right.

She made the French Open final in 2008 then won a silver medal at the Beijing Olympics later that same year before raising her game even higher in 2009.

She took over the number one ranking when she made the Australian Open final but her achievement was soured when she was hammered 6-0 6-3 by Serena Williams in under an hour.

A few months later, she made the French Open final for the second year in a row but lost to Svetlana Kuznetsova, but hopes the lessons of those defeats will help her in Australia this time.

"I wanted so badly to win (but) I didn't allow myself to play my best," she said.

"Every time you get older you know things, how to deal better. So I hope I will make it.

"I'm looking forward for Australia. If I was not fit, I would not come here. It makes no sense if you're not top fit to come."

(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)