Safin sets himself up for a year of playing dangerously

By Ronald Atkin in Barcelona

The Real Club de Tenis in Barcelona's swish Pedralbes district is one of the classier locations in a sport which does not do seedy. So, on a gentle spring day by the Mediterranean, the outdoor eating area of the players' lounge was a delightful spot to be. In the aftermath of victory, Marat Safin was certainly lapping it up, relishing his first tournament back after a string of injuries.

Safin had been out for three weeks with a sprained ankle, the third time this year he has been stricken пїЅ four, actually, if you include the bout of food poisoning which also flattened the 6ft 4in Russian. In his first event, Sydney in January, Safin pulled out in the third round with a strained shoulder. He recovered in time for the Australian Open, only to damage wrist tendons in his opening match and eventually default in the third round.

A month later Safin came back and played three events, culminating in a quarter-final at Indian Wells, before going over on the ankle first time out at the Miami tournament. When he suffered a recurrence while practising in Buenos Aires for Russia's Davis Cup quarter-final with Argentina, it was time to head home to Moscow for treatment and rest.

Barcelona has been the first stop along the clay-court path to next month's French Open, the Grand Slam where Safin rocketed into the reckoning as an 18-year-old in 1998 by knocking out Andre Agassi and the defending champion, Gustavo Kuerten. This week he plays Valen-cia, then Rome and Hamburg, before Paris. "I need to get physically and mentally fit, get some confidence back, so I can go strong to Roland Garros, because I want to do well there,'' Safin said, sipping a fizzy orange drink straight from the can. "But right now my main aim is not to get injured any more. I am a little bit afraid of running and sliding because the ankle was so painful. But I am not a person who runs a lot, who spends a lot of energy on the court. If I am mentally OK, if nothing is bothering me and I want to play, then it is fine.''

Safin's attitude, or rather lack of it, has been a matter of discussion and concern, not least to himself. It may appear churlish to knock someone who briefly became world No 1, who has won a Grand Slam and 10 other titles and who helped his nation to Davis Cup victory last year, but Marat himself conceded: "I can't be happy with what I have achieved. But I am still only 23 years old, though some people say: 'He's already 23'. But I have hopefully seven more years to play, so I think I can improve.''

Seven of those titles, including the US Open, were annexed in 2000. The following year he won two, and in 2002 just one. The US victory, when he demolished Pete Sampras in the final, is understandably his top memory: "I was in the right place at the right moment. God came to me, patted me on the head and said: 'You will win the glory'.

"But the French Open is the tournament I really love and enjoy playing. I feel at home there and always play well in Paris. I won the indoor title twice at Bercy, where we also won the Davis Cup last December, and I have been in the quarters and semis at Roland Garros. It's emotional, the city is so good you want to play tennis. And of course afterwards you go and have a good dinner, Champs ElysпїЅes, it's nice.''

But can he win there? "Why not? I am not one of the favourites, they will be Kuerten, Ferrero and Moya, but I can push them.''

Because he feels grass is his weakest surface, Safin does not rate himself among the favourites for Wimbledon, either. But he will prepare carefully by entering the Stella Artois event at Queen's Club and the Dutch grass tournament in Rosmalen. "But Wimbledon is not the tournament I love,'' he admitted. "I don't like how they treat the players. There are small things that don't cost them anything and they make such a big deal out of it. If they treat us this way, well, we have to treat them the same. We want to be respected, the way we respect Wimbledon, even if it is not the best Grand Slam on earth.''

Having seen off five coaches over the past three years, Safin is now travelling with a former tour pro, Denis Golovanov, who, he says, "is my best friend, a guy I trust who knows what I need. He has known me since I was 11 and I believe in him. I don't need a coach always telling me what to do, always wanting to change something.''

Tony Pickard, who acted as adviser when Safin got to Wimbledon's last eight in 2001, is the sole coach to earn plaudits. "Tony is the one guy who understood me, he found out really soon what I need. The others weren't coaches. I don't need to change things in my game, it is good enough. What I need to improve is my mental ability, to learn not to frustrate myself. They always want to change the player. They say: 'Now I am here, you will do what I say'. Why?

"I am also a person, I have been on the tour since I was 18, so I am not somebody from kindergarten who has no clue. I know what I want, I know what I need to beat other players, but something is missing. This is something I need to sort out, but I am quite responsible for myself.

"Good times will come,'' Safin forecast, with a final swig from the can. "If I stay fit my confidence will come back. I am going to be dangerous this year.''