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Safina a step away from first grand slam crown

THINNER, mentally tougher and No. 1 in the rankings, Dinara Safina feels ready to win her first grand slam title.

The top-seeded Safina is half of the third all-Russian major championship match, but still needs to beat Svetlana Kuznetsova in today's French Open final to claim one of the four biggest titles in tennis.

"It's one step easier because I'm already No. 1, so nobody can take it away from me," Safina said yesterday, referring to her losses to Serena Williams in this year's Australian Open final and to Ana Ivanovic in the 2008 French Open final. "Just one more step I need to do."

Safina took over as the top-ranked player in April, and she has reached the final in the four tournaments she has played, all on clay. In her 21 matches since then, she has lost only once - to Kuznetsova.

She credits much of that rise to coach Zeljko Krajan. "He had to start with everything from zero," Safina said. "First, it was belief, and then I started to play better. And then I was overweight. He was like, 'OK, now if you want to improve, you have to lose weight.' So we started to work on (that) and I lost my weight.

"He's like, 'OK, now the third part is mentally. In the tough moments you're breaking down, so we have to improve mentally.'"

Her inner toughness came through in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros. After dominating four straight opponents - losing only five games in the first four rounds - Safina lost the first set to Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals. But in the semifinals, she was back to her dominating self, beating Dominika Cibulkova.

Now, it's time for a rematch against Kuznetsova, the 2004 US Open champion who has been a friend and rival since their days as juniors.

"She was a funny girl. I remember her coming to the match with a two liter Pepsi," Safina said. "I mean, you would look at her, and it was like, 'No way she can be one day like winning (a) grand slam.'

"But then she moved to Spain and she changed completely. She became much more professional."

The two have met twice on clay this year, with Kuznetsova winning the title in Stuttgart, Germany, and Safina doing the same in Rome.

"It was definitely two different matches," said Kuznetsova, who is 4-7 overall against Safina. "In Stuttgart I was a little bit fresher. I played good, and I (took) advantage of my speed and I was moving Dinara around well. In Rome, I think Dinara played much better, but I played worse."


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