Soaking up her New York surroundings, Dinara Safina gives coaching a shot
NEW YORK -- Dinara Safina has a single finger up in the air as she holds her phone in front of her, excusing herself for just one minute.
"I'm sorry, it's my mom," she says in accented English, the glowing device lighting up her face.
It happens to be her parents' 38th wedding anniversary and she and her brother, fellow former world No. 1 tennis player Marat Safin, have treated them to a dinner out in Moscow.
"What is the limit?" her mom asks her via text.
"No limit," Dinara types back.
"OK. We will just have water," her mom says, clearly joking.
Safina can't help but break into a smile. "OK, sorry. I will put this away. Now, where were we?"
Where Dinara Safina is on this bright but cold winter day is Coney Island, Brooklyn. The onetime best women's tennis player in the world is finishing up her second week in a brand-new career: Coach. She's based at a facility called MatchPoint NYC in what is a heavily Russian Jewish neighborhood. She's been living in an apartment near Columbus Circle and Central Park on the Upper West Side since the end of August.
"I moved to New York for [the coaching], but also because I love it here, I wanted to move here," Safina says, having just finished a practice session with rising Ukrainian player Anhelina Kalinina, a finalist at the 2014 U.S. Open junior event.
"I've always had a feeling for New York. I just said to myself, 'If I have something inside that wants to try New York, I should do it.' Nothing is stopping me."
What stopped her playing career in 2011 at the age of 25 was a persistent back injury. She had reached the No. 1 ranking in the world two years prior, in the spring of 2009 in the midst of making three Grand Slam finals in two years, losing all of them in straight sets. But she won seven of her 12 career singles titles between 2008 and 2009, and when she reached the pinnacle of the WTA rankings, she and Marat became the first brother-sister duo to achieve such a feat.
"Unfortunately, for me, because of my injury I had to retire early at 25," says Safina, who officially pulled the plug in 2014. "I could have played more, but I don't regret it. What was done is done. I gave it 100 percent every day."
Safina turned 30 in April. She's younger than Serena and Venus Williams, younger than her childhood friend Svetlana Kuznetsova, as well as Roberta Vinci, Barbora Strycova and Sam Stosur, all of whom are ranked inside the top 25.
Did she walk away too soon? Pull the plug prematurely in a sport that has increasingly skewed older? To her, the answer is simple: No. She's at peace with the decision that she's made.
"I gave everything every day," she says, having ordered a hot chai tea in Russian in the lounge of MatchPoint, overlooking the nine indoor tennis courts. "Honestly, every practice, every match, I was giving my everything. I have no regrets."
Safina often gets grouped with fellow former world No. 1s Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Jankovic as women who ascended the rankings without winning a major title. Some say that shouldn't happen: A player getting to the No. 1 spot without a Grand Slam to his or her credit. But Safina has heard it all before.
"So what?" she says, pouring liquid stevia into her tea. "Oh my God, I've heard that 150 times. Yes, I didn't win a Grand Slam. I had three chances. Of course I wish I could have won one. ... But this is life. It's a game. It's not the end of the world. Does it make us worse people? Worse players? It didn't happen."
A lot has happened in Safina's life since May of 2011 when she lost in the second round of the WTA stop in Madrid to Germany's Julia Goerges, the final match of her career.
She went back to school in Russia and earned a degree in law. She served as a player relations figurehead for events in Moscow and Madrid. For two years, she was the director of operations for an IT firm in Moscow, going into an office every day and sitting at a desk. She hated it.
"There were moments that I would sit there and wish to get out of my skin and leave the office," Safina says. "I wanted to be on the court. But, I had the chance to try this, and now I know that it's something I don't want to do, to sit in an office all the time."
And then came the opportunity to coach. Safina had met Nino Muhatasov some 10 years earlier when he was traveling with Ukrainian sisters Alona and Kateryna Bondarenko as a coach. After Muhatasov settled in New York, he launched MatchPoint with partner Dmitry Druzhinsky, building two centers that include tennis courts, lap pools, full gyms and rhythmic gymnastics programs -- a Russian staple. Theirs was the first serious offer Safina had fielded.
"When I found out she was coming to New York, I wanted to have her help us build a base for professional players," Muhatasov says in his spacious office off the lounge. "Most players are based in Florida. But here we have everything for them: A pool, the gym, the courts. For us, I'm thrilled to have Dinara here. She needs no commercial. I personally believe that she is going to be a great coach. She understands the game."
Safina doesn't see her new role with Kalinina as a statement of any sort. Yes, there's a shortage of female coaches in the women's game (and in tennis overall), but that's because women are usually the ones to tend to their families, Safina says. For now, with no kids of her own, this is what her life entails.
After reaching the girls' final at the U.S. Open in 2014, Kalinina soared up the pro rankings. She won 39 matches -- mostly on the ITF Pro Circuit -- in 2015, to climb to a career-high ranking of No. 148 in the world toward the end of the year. A shoulder injury led to surgery, and she has played just a handful of matches in the last year. She'll be ranked No. 742 to start the 2017 season.
"It's a big challenge for me -- something that I've never done," Safina says. "I think I can help her. ... She reminds me so much of me when I was young. The way she answers to me is exactly the same way I answered to my coach. ... She's tall, and for me she has a big potential."
As few as three women coach in the current top 50 in the WTA, and even fewer are stars of Safina's stature. The great wave of former champions as coaches that has swept the men's game has not stuck on the women's tour -- Amelie Mauresmo, Lindsay Davenport, Justine Henin and Martina Navratilova had taken on gigs in the last couple of years.
"She is a legend," Kalinina says of Safina after a post-practice meal. "But she is so easy going. It's a big pleasure working with her because she teaches me a lot of things. Mostly, I understand how I should work over 100 percent for every ball. That's because of her professional attitude. She's very professional. I'm trying to do the same thing."
In her new New York life, Safina has a driver who picks her up each morning on Manhattan's Upper West Side and takes her the 45 minutes to Coney Island. She also has a trainer she is working out with because she likes to stay fit, and says that three bikinis in a drawer at her apartment are the motivation -- a vacation in Tulum, Mexico, looms over the holidays.
She has tickets to see Cate Blanchett's Broadway debut in the play "The Present," and switches running routes between the Hudson River and Central Park -- the Hudson route is preferred because it's flatter. She has a view of Lincoln Center and likes breakfasts at Le Pain Quotidien, the upscale French-inspired bakery chain.
What Safina misses most about the tour is the friendships, notably with other Russians like Kuznetsova, Elena Dementieva, Anastasia Myskina, Ekaterina Makarova, Elena Vesnina and others. And yes, she misses the competition, too.
"I do miss it, but in a good way," she explains. "People say, 'If you were playing now...,' but to me, what's done is done. I want to be back on tour as a coach, but there is no second life. We have one life. I gave it 100 percent when I was playing and I got injured. For me, it was a sign to have another part of my life. And now I want to help others get to where I was."
Life is full of possibility, even as she fully steps away from a career that can seem like a lifetime ago. But why New York City? Why now?
"I don't know why," she says. "But I love the energy here so much. Everyone here is positive. People want new challenges, new experiences. ... I have rented the apartment for one year, but I hope to stay forever. I love being here."