Last year Marat Safin smashed 48 rackets, but this year he's
cracked the Top 5
By L. Jon Wertheim
Issue date: August 28, 2000
HELP WANTED: Tempestuous Top 5 tennis player seeks full-time
coach to accompany him on circuit. Experience preferred. Must
be able to moonlight as sports psychologist. Flexible hours.
If you're interested in the above position, fax your rпїЅsumпїЅ
and references to the ATP Tour, attention: Marat Safin. The
20-year-old Russian, currently the No. 4 player in the world,
may be tearing up the tennis circuit, but since April he has
been unable to retain a full-time coach, relying instead on
an assortment of temps. "I'm starting to take it personally,"
Safin says of the unfilled position. "Maybe nobody loves me."
That's hardly the case -- and not just because Safin's walk-into-a-net-post-gorgeous
girlfriend, Silvia, is usually on his arm when he's not on the
court. As Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, now 29 and 30 respectively,
enter their sunset years and gradually relinquish the baton,
Safin is emerging as the leading young light in men's tennis.
The centerpiece of the ATP Tour's cheeky NEW BALLS PLEASE ad
campaign, which tacitly acknowledges that the sport is desperate
for a transfusion, Safin is a star for the new millennium. He's
tall, dark and handsome; he speaks three languages (Russian,
Spanish and English in descending order of fluency); and he's
disarmingly candid. Not surprisingly, he's fast becoming a fan
favorite. Playing in the RCA Championships in Indianapolis last
week, Safin was mobbed for autographs and photos at every turn.
"I only sign for beautiful girls," he joked before obliging
Hoosiers of all shapes and sizes.
Unlike another young, photogenic Russian tennis player featured
in the pages of this magazine (Anna Kournikova, who a decade
ago trained with Safin in Moscow), he has the results to justify
the hype. The proprietor of a 133-mph serve and unmatched all-court
skills, Safin has won three tournaments and more than $1.2 million
in prize money this year. Though he has never advanced beyond
the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam event, his stamina and heat-seeking
baseline missiles place him on the shortlist of viable contenders
to win the wide-open U.S. Open, which commences on Monday.
Regardless of how he fares at Flushing Meadows, the consensus
on tour is that Safin is a future No. 1. "He's only 20, he's
a big, strong guy, and he's got all the tools," Sampras said
after Safin defeated him en route to winning last month's Toronto
Masters Series event. "Being Number 1 and staying there is a
whole new ball game, but he's got the potential to do that."
Adds fellow Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who had a brief tenancy
in the rankings penthouse last year: "Marat is so talented,
he will be as good as he wants to be."
Such benedictions would have been unthinkable earlier this year,
when Safin played so poorly and with such little passion that
he contemplated retirement. In the first round of the Australian
Open, he lost to little-known Grant Stafford of South Africa
after an effort so desultory that he was docked $2,000 for tanking.
(That," says Safin of the fine, "was bulls---.") By late April,
Safin had won only five matches in 12 tournaments. "Confidence
is so funny," he says, pointing to his head. "It's not coming,
not coming, not coming, and you say, 'I have no chance of beating
anybody.' You just have to hope it returns. When it does, then
you feel no one should beat you."
His personal perestroika, as it were, has come at a price. Before
the Open Seat Godo 2000, in Barcelona in April, Safin parted
ways with his longtime coach, Rafael Mensua. They had been together
since Safin was 13 and Mensua took him from Moscow to Valencia,
Spain, to train year-round. "We were -- we still are -- like
a father and son," Safin says, "but it was heading to the point
where I would say, 'Ah, f--- you,' and he would say, 'Ah f---
you,' and we might never talk again. Both of us needed a change."
With Mensua no longer in his box, Safin won the title in Barcelona,
took the trophy in the Mallorca Open the next week and reached
the finals of the Hamburg Masters Series event two weeks later,
losing in a fifth-set tiebreaker to Gustavo Kuerten. Andrei
Chesnokov, a former Top 10 player, worked with Safin in the
spring before returning to his family in Moscow. Veteran coach
Tony Pickard punched the clock during the grass-court season,
including Wimbledon. Former pro Alexander Volkov has been with
Safin during the summer hard-court stretch but will return home
to Russia after the U.S. Open. Given Safin's recent success,
does he need a full-time coach? "I'm not disciplined enough,"
he says. "I get bored too easily."
On the court, certainly, he often has a hard time sustaining
his focus. Safin plays a high-risk style of tennis, sizing up
the lines and wasting little time massaging a point. When he's
on, he plays breathtakingly well, blending power with style
and grace. In his first match in Indianapolis, against Israel's
Harel Levy, Safin offered a tasting menu of his skills, smoking
winners from the baseline, pounding aces and knocking off clever
Yet when his radar is off a bit, the results can be disastrous.
Earlier this month in Cincinnati, for instance, he overhit relentlessly
and lost in straight sets to France's Fabrice Santoro, a markedly
inferior player. "Sometimes he's out of control," Volkov says
of Safin. "In that match I thought he was going to have a heart
When Safin is having a rough day, he often takes out his frustrations
on his Head graphite rackets. He claims that last year he cracked
48 of his implements, and he is on a similar pace this year.
Fortunately for Safin, the ATP Tour has relaxed its rules on
racket abuse, on the grounds that it promotes "color" among
the players. "That's the way it should be," Safin says. "I'm
not like [the preternaturally poised] Stefan Edberg; I'm not
a robot. I'm an individual who gets mad. If I break a racket,
who does it really hurt?"
Safin reckons that he gets his, um, exuberant personality from
his father, Misha, a director at a municipal tennis club in
Moscow. (Marat's mother, Rausa Islanova, a tennis coach, trains
his 14-year-old sister, Dinara, a highly regarded junior.) But
if Safin's temper is of the hair-trigger variety, he is equally
quick with a one-liner. After Safin outlasted Sampras in Toronto,
a reporter congratulated him on having played an excellent tiebreaker
in the third set. "For you, maybe it was good," Safin responded.
"For me, I lost 10 years of my life."
Last week he was asked if he had designs on emulating Kournikova
and emigrating soon to the U.S. "Oh, so you want me to kill
myself?" responded Safin, who recently bought an apartment in
Monte Carlo. "They don't even let me drink a beer in this country."
Then there's the matter of that coaching vacancy. "I can't understand
it," Safin says with mock earnestness. "You get to spend 24
hours a day around me. That should be hard to resist, shouldn't