Sultry Safin's female following

Tuesday, 22 January, 2002,
By BBC Sport Online's Tom Fordyce

Marat Safin celebrated his fourth round win over Pete Sampras with a huge bellow, clenched his fists and fell to the floor.

Up in the VIP box, several beautiful blondes greeted the victory with rather more decorum, but looked just as pleased.

Bookmakers' favourite Safin believes in doing things in style. Not for him the stony-faced presence in the stands of a coach or an obsessive parent.

A bevy of attractive female friends to hang out with is all the 21-year-old Russian needs to get him playing at the peak of his considerable abilities.

"Definitely, I think you have to admit that I have an unbelievably beautiful bench," he says proudly.

"I'm travelling with my friends and I'm having fun. I needed to find the motivation against Sampras, and that's why I brought so many friends.

"When I have fun, I enjoy my tennis, and the only reason I enjoy my tennis is being with my friends. They are helping me, they are giving me the confidence I need."

Safin, who will be 22 on men's final day on Sunday, has found his form at just the right time.

Having been runner-up to Gustavo Kuerten in the 2000 Champions' Race, winning seven titles and hammering Sampras in straight sets to take the US Open, he endured a miserable 2001.

For a long time, the feisty Muscovite struggled to put his finger on exactly where he was going wrong.

Even when free of injury, he was still not able to reach the previous year's giddy heights, winning just two tournaments and finishing a lowly 11th in the Champions' Race.
He considered parting company with coach Mats Wilander, because the home-loving Swede refused to travel on tour with him for more than 20 weeks of the year.

With his confidence shot to pieces, Safin decided to make some changes.

He ditched girlfriend Silvia Torrens, sister of fellow ATP Tour player Cristina Torrens Valero, and moved his base from Valencia to Geneva.

"I had problems, I couldn't find my game, I got a little bit lost," he says.

"I needed to stop for a couple of months to get my confidence back and I had nothing else in Valencia. I wanted to be a little closer to Russia."

Wilander has not travelled to Australia, although he has been speaking to his charge on the phone.

For the moment the two have decided to stay together, Safin admitting that Wilander's calm approach helps keep his own fiery temperament under control.

Safin has also brought the Italian Roberto Brogin to Melbourne, and he may yet ask him to stay on his team.

"I've known him for a long time," says Safin. "He's a great friend of mine.

It's great to have people who care about you. He is staying in my hotel room and we are having fun. I'm pretty satisfied he's bringing me luck."

This week's victory over Sampras was symbolic in many ways.

The US Open win in 2000 was supposed to herald the breaking of a brave new dawn in men's tennis, with Safin leading the charge.

A year later, Sampras struck back, dumping Safin out at the semi-final stage in straight sets.

To make the defeat even harder to stomach, Sampras was himself beaten in the final - by Lleyton Hewitt, Safin's main rival amongst the new breed.

Chilled vodka

Now, with Hewitt gone early in front of his home fans, Safin can show the tennis world who the real successor to Sampras is.

With only Wayne Ferreira standing between him and a semi-final meeting with Tommy Haas or Marcelo Rios, the timing has never been better.

Safin has always possessed the all-round game to become world number one. He's also the only player left in the men's singles with a Grand Slam title to his name already.

If his sexy support stays in place, the man who toasted that US Open triumph with a crate of chilled vodka should be celebrating his birthday in style.