Safin's gamble

By Paul Malone
14 January 2003

He's 23, coaching his best friend and a lot of people say he has one of the most thankless jobs in tennis.

But Russian Denis Golovanov, the world's No 183 ranked player, has put his tennis career on hold to guide the unpredictable talent of Marat Safin to Grand Slam glory and another stint as world No 1.

Safin, who has changed his coaches repeatedly over the years, said he had appointed Golovanov last November because "he's the only one I can trust" and admitted he didn't know whether the appointment would work out.

Golovanov, who is nine months older than the Australian Open's third seed, said their friendship meant he was one coach who could tell Safin what he did not want to hear.

"It's not easy to coach because he's my best friend, but I can tell him many things because I know him for a lot of years," said Golovanov, who rated Safin certain to play against Dutchman Raemon Sluiter today despite shoulder tendonitis.

"I know him for a lot of years and really care about him. I will try to help him tactically and maybe mentally.

"Maybe some other people are afraid to tell him the truth is. When things are good I tell him and when it's bad I tell him it's bulls..."

Three men wore accreditation tags identifying them as Safin's coach at the 2002 Open campaign in which the Russian finished as runner-up, with Israeli Amit Noar being replaced during the year.

"As a player who lost his only Grand Slam singles match at Wimbledon last June, Golovanov is learning on the job how to deal with the pressures surrounding elite players.

"I was a player before, but I have never been in this type of sitiuation so it's very difficult for me as well," he said.

"He can be No 1. He's been No 1 already. Maybe for him, the goal is to finish No 1 at the end of the year. In 2000, (Gustavo) Kuerten beat him by a couple of points in the Champions' Race."

A sideshow to Safin's opening match will be how many female supporters will be his guest, after two Russian blondes and an Australian blonde supported him for many of his 2002 Open matches.

Golovanov, who has a one-year agreement with Safin, said he might play doubles with Safin later in the year.

"I might play again, but not right now. I can't do both well at the same time," he said.