Red Alert


Wednesday, December 20, 2000
By Barry Flatman

The scene in Flushing Meadows' interview room after Marat Safin had explained and analysed his US Open triumph was unprecedented in tennis. Regularly a couple of cold beers are opened to celebrate a good win. Occasionally, even a magnum of champagne is cracked for the more momentous of titles. But never a whole crate of chilled Stolichnaya vodka.

Then again, Marat Safin promises to be no ordinary Grand Slam champion.

Safin is the state-of-the-art answer to those who long have complained tennis is lacking in the sort of personalities needed to inject interest into the game. Both a clown and a rebel, he smiles, he jokes, he rages, he breaks racquets. At times he makes great show of how much he is enjoying himself on court, at others he makes no attempt at disguising his self-loathing.

Gregarious and engaging by nature, he likes to make people smile and laugh, and clearly enjoys a party ... as the vodka proved.

But he also admits an ability to produce the sort of behavior which can make those who care about him wince and can never guarantee good behavior. But - and this is what really counts - the 20-year-old from Moscow happens to be a very special sort of player whose power is frightening but touch exquisite.

The way he overcame Pete Sampras in straight sets in the US Open final was a memory few of those fortunate enough to be in New York that cloudy September Sunday afternoon will ever forget. Safin took on the man regarded as the very best and left him in a tattered heap. At that very moment, tennis seemed to move into a new era.

"I cannot play quiet," he insists. "I have to let my feelings show. I try to say to myself don't worry but it doesn't usually work. I need to shout and throw the racquet because otherwise I get too nervous. But now I try not to go crazy too much."

It had been a quarter of a century since a former US champion had suffered such a pummelling in the final. Perhaps Safin will never play so well again as he did in that 6-4 6-3 6-3 annihilation of the record-breaking winner of 13 Grand Slam titles. Many are convinced it was just the end of a first chapter in a story which could become one of the greatest in the game.

Of course, those at Melbourne Park who stood court side just 12 months ago as the Muscovite became the first player in Grand Slam history to be fined for not trying in his opening round exit to South Africa's Grant Stafford could be forgiven for querying whether they were watching the same player. The incident can never be totally swept under the carpet and doubtless played its part in what happened to Safin in the ensuing months.

A year on he still insists he was harshly treated but cannot deny the display was symptomatic of his then disenchantment with the life of a tennis star and he needed a few forceful reminders of just what he had going for him. The skill and power were never in any doubt; the commitment at times was dubious and that was the issue to be addressed.

The rebellious streak in Safin had always been there. His first coach was his mother, Rausa Islanova, who today can also be credited with starting the Olympic silver medalist Elena Dementieva on the road to stardom. But while the young girl in her charge dutifully listened to the advice, Marat was only too ready to answer back. At the age of 14, the situation got to breaking point.

"I was tired of fighting with my mother and she could see I needed to go somewhere else so they put all their money in sending me to Spain," he recalled. "It was hard, very hard. I did not know anyone and could not speak the language but it taught me many things and it is probably why I have got what I have today."

He was schooled in the Spanish way in Valencia, a contemporary of another emerging superstar Juan Carlos Ferrero. Coached by Rafael Mensua, he finally exploded onto the world scene at the 1998 French Open where, as an almost unknown, he ousted both Andre Agassi and defending champion Gustavo Kuerten. It was the sort of form guaranteed to attract the sports' most powerful men.

Like Mark McCormack. The International Management Group chief was spotted at Roland Garros during the French Open, taking snap shots of Safin with his own personal instamatic camera.

But the player decided against becoming another of the lengthy IMG roster and instead followed in the footsteps of Guillermo Vilas, Henri Leconte, Boris Becker and Goran Ivanisevic by linking up with that mustachioed svengali, Ion Tiriac. When the alarm bells started ringing at the beginning of last year, the wise old Romanian decided that his charge, rather than needing one overpowering coach, should begin getting advice from several people on various facets on what it takes to get to the top.

Safin admitted he seriously considered quitting tennis last March, so bad were the pressures building inside his head. So Tiriac first enlisted former Russian player Andrei Chesnokov, himself no conformist, to aid the youngster in the art of positive thinking.

Almost immediately there was an upswing in form, with titles in Barcelona and Majorca as well as a final place in Hamburg.

"I just became a fighter whereas before I was a disaster ... do you know how many matches I lost 6-0 in the second set?" recalled Safin. "I was going onto court not knowing what to do and allowing myself to get down if things didn't go well. I could not see how to change things around but Chesnokov he told me to fight and be positive. He said stop making Christmas presents of matches for the other guys. He said go out to win and sometimes if it doesn't work at least you have the thought in your head."

By the time Safin reached the last eight of the French Open, he was a changed man.

Englishman Tony Pickard, the man who guided Stefan Edberg throughout a noble career, was the next tutor enlisted to instruct on the nuances of grass-court tennis. When Safin journeyed across the Atlantic for the North American hard court swing, another former Russian player, Alexander Volkov, acted as his chaperone.

The Masters Series title in Toronto was followed by the final in Indianapolis and then, of course, the US Open.

He did not shut up shop for the year, however, adding a fifth title for 2000 just a fortnight later with victory at Tashkent, Uzbekistan. It completed a year in which he bettered US$2 million in prizemoney and entrenched himself in the top five of the world, including a stint at No.1 in September.

Not bad given the year's horrendous start here in Melbourne.

With 13 Grand Slam titles and six successive years at the top of the rankings, Sampras is perfectly versed with the credentials for greatness in tennis, so it is best left for the vanquished American to speculate on what exactly Safin can achieve.

"He can be No.1 for many, many years to come. Together with Lleyton Hewitt he is the future. It all depends on how much he wants to do it."

Of that, only one man can be sure.