Major breakthrough - Safin could become one of tennis' big stars


Wednesday August 09, 2000

Now comes the big test for Marat Safin -- the one which determines if he's a bona fide tennis superstar in the making.

The 20-year-old Russian won the Masters Series title in Toronto, Canada -- a breakthrough of major proportions.

He did it by beating Wimbledon champion and all-time Grand Slam king Pete Sampras in the quarterfinals.

There, Safin gave another non-too-subtle hint that he was made of championship material as he fended off three match points in the decisive third set tie-break, before going on to victory.

OK, so there was an untimely double-fault by Sampras on one of the match points. But Safin still had to go on from there and capitalize on his good fortune by showing skill and fortitude in those other crucial last few points.

His ultimate triumph against Sampras was not so much an injection of confidence as an intravenous drip-load of the stuff, which allowed him to swagger to title success on Sunday against Israeli upstart Harel Levy.

But will the drip run dry all-too-quickly, as can so easily happen to a young sports champion after his first date with prestigious title glory?

Safin has won other titles this year. But none of the magnitude of the Masters Series. Once that big one's under the belt, following up with more of the same is probably more difficult than capturing that first bolt of lofty title glory.

Now we'll see if he can stamp his authority on the game for a sustained spell, all the way through to the U.S. Open and beyond.

Entering the Masters event in Cincinnati, he was an impressive 4th in the ATP Points Race. The end-of-season world championship beckons.

Safin has the talent and potential to be the next generation's number one star. But does he have the desire? Does he have the temperament?

And if he does have those qualities and he goes on to bigger and better things, does he have the capacity to enjoy it all?

Safin was far too dour in his post-match interview after winning in Toronto. We already have one miserable Russian in Yevgeny Kafelnikov. Frankly, we don't need another.

So smile a bit more Marat, show us all you've got and take tennis into the post-Sampras and Agassi era in endearing style.

Phil Jones is a co-host of "World Sport," the international sports show that airs live on CNN/Sports Illustrated and CNN International.