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Safina, Kuznetsova renew rivalry in French final

The all-Russian women's final at the French Open renews a rivalry dating back a decade, and Svetlana Kuznetsova hopes to fare better than the first time she faced Dinara Safina.

sports Updated: Jun 05, 2009 12:02 IST

The all-Russian women's final at the French Open renews a rivalry dating back a decade, and Svetlana Kuznetsova hopes to fare better than the first time she faced Dinara Safina.

They were juniors then- Kuznetsova from St. Petersburg and Safina from Moscow- both with athletic bloodlines.

"I was like 12 or 13, and Dinara was an unbelievable girl," Kuznetsova said. "She's one year younger than me. I had no chance playing against her. I remember I lose to her 6-1, 6-love or something."

They've played each other many times since, and Kuznetsova leads 7-4 in tour-level matches. Saturday's showdown will be the biggest yet, with a Grand Slam title at stake.

It would be the first for Safina and the second for Kuznetsova, the 2004 US Open champion.

"It's definitely going to be stress, definitely going to be emotion, definitely going to be business. Everything," the No 7-seeded Kuznetsova said.

They've been the best players on clay this year, meeting on the surface twice in finals last month. Safina beat Kuznetsova for the title at Stuttgart, Germany, then lost when they played in the final in Rome a week later.

Since climbing to atop the rankings in April, Safina has reached the final in the four tournaments she has played, all on clay.

"She's going to be favorite to win," Kuznetsova said. "She's No 1. She has played an unbelievable season."

In Safina's 21 matches as the top-ranked player, she has lost only once- to Kuznetsova.

The focus in the men's semifinals on Friday was on No 2 Roger Federer, bidding to complete a career Grand Slam and tie Pete Sampras' record of 14 major titles. Federer was to play No 5 Juan Martin del Potro, and No. 12 Fernando Gonzalez was to meet No. 23 Robin Soderling.

Kuznetsova comes from a family of cyclists, including her brother, Nikolai Kuznetsov, a silver medalist at the 1996 Olympics. She's shorter and less powerful than Safina but plenty mobile, as her 16-3 record this spring on clay shows.

That includes a grueling win over Serena Williams in this week's quarterfinals, and a semifinal victory on Thursday against Samantha Stosur of Australia, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3.

Safina enjoys good genes, too: Older brother Marat Safin is a former No 1 and two-time Grand Slam champion. He was already a rising star when Kuznetsova first met Safina.

"She was very good then, and then her brother was huge," Kuznetsova said. "I was coming to Marat, 'Hey, I know your sister Dinara. Can you give me autograph?' You know, it was funny."

Safina reached the Roland Garros final for the second year in a row by beating Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia 6-3, 6-3. In 2008 Safina was seeded 13th and lost the final to Ana Ivanovic.
Now she's No. 1.

"I know that I have a chance and I want to win it, so it's a little bit more pressure for me," Safina said. "Last year it was everything much easier. I step on the court and I have nothing to lose."

Justine Henin and others have criticized Safina's ranking because she has yet to win a major title. Williams _ the winner of the past two Grand Slam events _ has said she's the real No. 1.

"The way I'm playing," Safina said, "I think it shows enough that I think I deserve this spot."

Emotions could play a role in the final. Safina's notorious temper was evident in the semifinal, when she chastised herself in English and Russian. Kuznetsova is saddled with a reputation for struggling to close out big matches, although she has done it twice this week and credits favorable vibes from her new coach, Larisa Savchenko.

"She stays all match positive," Kuznetsova said. "Doesn't matter what happens, she just stays calm. To me it's important. I can't stand when people make me nervous, say, 'How you do this? How you do that?' I say, 'Guys, just go and play yourself if you want to do better."'

The all-Russian major final will be the third in five years, and there may be more in the future. Safina and Kuznetsova are two of eight Russian women in the top 30.

"Every time there is Russian in tournaments, they say, 'Oh, Russian final again. We need somebody else. We need some American,"' Kuznetsova said. "But we still go, and we still fight. We go all the time forward."

First Published: Jun 05, 2009 11:59 IST