Russian roulette: Safin explosive, unpredictable

courtesy Cincinnati post
Publication date: 08-05-02
By Marc Lancaster

MASON, Ohio - Get ready, folks. The Marat Safin show is coming to Center Court, and there's no telling how long it'll last.

The racquet-breaking, crowd-pleasing, incredibly talented but erratic Russian has tonight's featured match at the Western & Southern Masters. It won't be easy, either. Safin will face Greg Rusedski at 7 p.m. on Center Court. American Todd Martin will follow, against Tommy Robredo of Spain. Also tonight, rising American star James Blake will face Romania's Andrei Pavel in the 7 p.m. match on the Grandstand Court.

Pete Sampras, Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick and Michael Chang won't open singles play until Tuesday. The most anticipated first-round match, defending champion Gustavo Kuerten against fourth-seeded Tim Henman, will also be Tuesday.

Which Safin will show up tonight? Even he probably doesn't know. The 22-year-old already has one Grand Slam title on his resume (he beat Pete Sampras in the 2000 U.S. Open final), but along with that are a number of inexplicable moments. His time in all three Grand Slams this year ended in uniquely Safin fashion.

Safin rolled through the Australian Open draw, surviving a tough semifinal with Tommy Haas on the way to what should have been an easy win vs. Thomas Johansson in the final. But Safin, after winning the first set against the anonymous Swede, simply collapsed, and lost the match in four sets.

At Roland Garros, Safin again had minimal trouble reaching the semifinal, where he ran into Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero. Granted, Ferrero excels on clay, but more was expected of Safin than his meek 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 exit.

Finally, and most maddening, was Wimbledon. After defeating Cedric Pioline easily in the opener, Safin and his powerful game somehow were undermined by Olivier Rochus in the second round. The diminutive Belgian gives up 11 inches, about 70 pounds and a heck of a lot of game to Safin, but still managed to get by him in four sets.

With shaky showings like that as evidence, even Safin acknowledges that the biggest hurdle he has to clear on the court is the mental one.

"It's not only passing the ball, just hitting the ball as hard as you can, just serve and volley. It's more than that,'' he said. "Sometimes you are using your head. It's difficult sometimes to win matches for some reasons. That is what happened to me in Wimbledon and semifinals in Paris.''

It sounds like some help from a sports psychologist might be in order, but Safin doesn't want to hear it.

"Me, I'm . . . not completely a nut case, I'm just different,'' he said. "People, they see what I'm doing on the court and some people don't understand. I have to push myself sometimes when I'm losing. I have to break a racquet, whatever, just throw the ball out of the court. At the end, it helps me.''

His former coach, Mats Wilander, decided to fine him for each racquet he broke during last season, in an attempt to keep his pupil's temper under control. It didn't take. Safin had trouble both with and without his daily dose of racquet abuse, and he and Wilander parted ways at the end of the year.

Safin arrives in Cincinnati playing fairly well, but without a title in 2002. He made it to the final at the Hamburg Masters Series event in May, but lost to Roger Federer. Last week, he made it to the quarterfinals in Toronto before bowing to eventual champion Guillermo Canas.

Last year in Cincinnati, Safin lost to Canas in the first round, 6-3, 6-3. It was his second first-round defeat here in three years; he also lost to Michael Chang in 1999 in his Cincinnati debut.

With Safin, you don't know what you're going to get until the match begins - and sometimes not even then. But at the end of the day, the affable Russian swears his focus is on the game.

On a recent teleconference, a reporter started the questioning by pointing out that Safin said a few years ago that he loved women more than tennis. Is that still the case?

"You cannot compare pleasure with business, my friend. It's two different things,'' he said. "So you have to dedicate yourself to the business or to the pleasure. Sometimes you have to choose between business and pleasure. You choose business. This is my case.''