Safin says this time it won't be 'tanks for coming'

Friday 18 January 2002

Just as Goran Ivanisevic has confirmed the existence of three distinct Gorans, tennis has seen at least two versions of Marat Safin. The first Safin was fined for failing to give his "best effort", a polite euphemism for not trying, against an obscure qualifier on an outside court in the first round of the 2000 Australian Open.

The first Safin consumed four coaches in 12 months, a career's worth for most players, and blows up at the first sign of adversity. The first Safin is Russian for erratic.

The second Safin appeared a few months after that infamous Australian Open tank match, and blew the field apart at the 2000 US Open, defeating Pete Sampras in the final. This second Safin was mature, focused and nearly finished 2000 as the youngest No.1 in the game's history, 12 months before Lleyton Hewitt claimed that honour.

Which Safin has turned up at Melbourne Park? As the drawcards disappear, the tournament must hope it's not Safin No.1. The fact Safin is among the surviving seeds, suggests that Melbourne will see the better side of Safin's nature.

The 21-year-old Russian says the winning Safin has come to Melbourne. The good Safin certainly appeared on centre court yesterday, when the ninth seed did what few famous names have managed - to win a match against a lowly ranked opponent. Last year's finalist, Arnaud Clement, joined the mass exodus yesterday, defeated in four sets by Argentinian Gaston Gaudio.

Safin beat Belgium's Christophe Rochus in straight sets to set up a third-round all-Russian contest with Mikhail Youzhny, who is from the same Moscow club that produced Safin and Anna Kournikova. Safin and 19-year-old Youzhny are regular practice partners; Safin calls his friend "the biggest star in Russia".

Safin is prone to speak with his tongue firmly in cheek. Or to respond to questions with the same nonchalance that marks his tennis. Yesterday, he was asked what he was doing between matches in Melbourne. "I am not doing anything at all," was the blunt reply.

Safin volunteered that his excessive energy might have been responsible for his past poor performances at Melbourne Park. "Too many things I have in my head, so maybe that's why I have never played well here, because, you know, many things ... the less things you have in your head, the better you play."

Safin, who turns 22 on the day of the men's final, deserves to be a favourite here. After Sampras, he has the best grand slam pedigree of the survivors; even last year, when a rib injury halted his momentum and he fell from No.2 to No.11, Safin still reached the quarters of Wimbledon and the semis of the US Open. "I have a good chance here," he said.

Safin's legion of fans in Europe and Russia - he was voted the ATP's fans' favourite player for 2001 - should be most encouraged by the second set of yesterday's match. This was the period in which Rochus controlled the tempo. Conceding 23 centimetres in height and about 40kmh on serve, the 170-centimetre Belgian recognised that he could win only with deftness and cunning. For most of the set, he succeeded.

Rochus twice had the set at his mercy: at 4-2 and in the tiebreak, when he held three set points (6-3).

And twice Safin responded by raising his game. He reeled off five points to take the tiebreak, turning a potentially dangerous match into a quick kill.

Safin says he is mentally stronger than before. "I have to be a tough guy on the court so everybody has to be scared of me, and everybody has to work a little bit harder than normally to beat me."

His opponents here will certainly have to work harder than Grant Stafford, the qualifier who beat Safin in the tank match of 2000. "Shit happens, you know," Safin said of his undignified exit from this event two years ago. What can I say? I got fined, yes, I didn't play my best tennis. But it was two years ago and I'm different guy, a different player." Or the other side of the same coin.