• What the Deuce

Retirement the right move for forgotten woman Safina

Jo Carter October 11, 2011
Dinara Safina has been struggling with a back injury for two years © Getty Images

In an interview on her official website, when Dinara Safina was asked how long she wanted to continue playing on the WTA Tour, the Russian replied: "Until I die".

Currently ranked at No. 129 in the world, Safina has been sidelined since May with a chronic back injury, and on Friday her brother, former world No. 1 Marat Safin claimed his sister would never return to the tour.

"She can live a daily life, but can't do sports anymore," Safin said. "An athlete has lived with sports for 20 years. Now she needs a year to pull herself together, then she will decide. She is only 25 and there's no need to hurry her."

But Safina was quick to respond to Safin's comments, claiming she had not made any decision to retire. "I just want to inform you that I am not retiring at this time," Safina confirmed on her official website. "I will continue to use therapy to try to treat my back injury and hope to return to competition eventually."

Exactly two years ago, Safina was usurped as world No. 1 by Serena Williams, and so began her slide down the rankings as she revealed she had been struggling with a back injury.

She was forced to retire from the 2010 Australian Open with the problem, and subsequently pulled out of tournaments in Dubai, Indian Wells and Miami, and even when she did return to action, she endured a six-match losing streak which saw her plummet outside of the world top 20.

The low point came at the French Open, where as runner-up the previous year, her fall from grace was highlighted in her first-round defeat to 39-year-old Kimiko Date Krumm, after being a set and a break up.

This season hasn't been much better for Safina. The Russian finally got her first win of the season against the little-known Han Xinyun after three straight defeats at the start of 2011. She showed glimmers of the form that had propelled her to the top of the world rankings in Indian Wells, where she beat fourth seed Sam Stosur before falling in the fourth round to Maria Sharapova.

Safina has lost all three of her grand slam final appearances © Getty Images

But after reaching the semi-finals on the clay in Morocco, her season was cut short by a recurrence of her back injury. "I don't know how long my time out is going to last because I don't want to torture myself and my body anymore," she said.

Having not competed since the beginning of May, Safina has slipped off the radar. While the Williams sisters have the profile to remain in the headlines even when they are not playing, Safina is the forgotten woman of women's tennis.

"I'm not missing it at all," Safina admitted recently. "If you live with this pain for a year and a half, it's not fun anymore. Whenever I start to think I'm going to have this back pain again, it's just frustrating. So for me, I just want to have a normal life."

It seems it is a case of when, not if, Safina will confirm her retirement, but in the unlikely event she should recover fully from such a debilitating injury, there is no guarantee she will find her way back to the top of the women's game.

Since Safina lost her No. 1 ranking to Serena Williams, Caroline Wozniacki has emerged as the leading figure in the sport. While Wozniacki has also taken on Safina's unwelcome claim to having been world No. 1 without winning a grand slam, the Dane has established herself as real force in the sport.

While Wozniacki's failure to land a slam is predominantly tactical - her failure to produce the big shots at the right time, Safina's problem appeared to be a mental block - often breaking down in tears during a match.

But even at the height of her powers in 2009, Safina's serve remained her Achilles heel. And as Sharapova learnt during her defeat to Petra Kvitova during this year's Wimbledon final, such a weakness will be exploited.

Coming back from serious injury is not easy. Nikolay Davydenko is a shadow of the player he was when he broke his wrist at the start of last season, while Juan Martin del Potro has also struggled to reach the form that saw him win the US Open two years ago.

These days, retirement isn't as final as it sounds. Justine Henin was back less than two years after announcing her retirement from the sport in 2008. Likewise, Kim Clijsters, Martina Hingis and Bjorn Borg have all returned to the sport after hanging up their rackets - with varying degrees of success.

With such a serious injury, Safina is as good as retired. She hinted she is no longer enjoying the sport, and would do well to call time on her career. Retiring from the WTA Tour does not stop her playing tennis for pleasure. If she then decides she wants to return to action next year, or even in five years' time (she is still only 25) - then there is nothing to stop her doing so.

Gone is the youthful enthusiasm when she claimed she would be playing tennis forever. She has not missed the grind of the WTA Tour, and the sport has not really missed her either.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Jo Carter Close
Jo Carter is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk