Safin tries to focus

Tempermental Russian wants to reassert himself in Paris

DUSSELDORF, Germany (Reuters) -- The towering man with the wild eyes and thick wavy hair, who just moments before had been screaming in Russian and flinging his racquet into the clay on missed points, had regained his composure.

Marat Safin, the U.S. Open champion whose 2001 season has been marred by injuries, was a different man as he spoke in a voice barely above a whisper after his win over Franco Squillari at the World Team Cup.

"I'm getting older and more clever," said the 21-year-old Russian as he contemplated his chances at next week's French Open. "It's very important for me to win something."

"I've had two good matches here this week," he said, referring to his win over Argentine Squillari on Thursday as well as his straight-sets win over former world No. 1 Pete Sampras. "I will be ready for the French Open. I think I'm prepared."

And despite his soft-spoken demeanor in interviews, when he went out on the court in Dusseldorf there was still plenty of fire in Safin.

He was given three code violations and docked points in a loss to Frenchman Sebastien Grosjean.

Upset at some controversial umpiring calls, he first hit a ball into the nearby forest then destroyed his racket, and later hit the referee's chair with another racket.

Safin later said the American referee, Norm Chryst, had "something against Russians."

The Russian was born in Moscow but moved to Spain as a teenager to perfect his game in a warmer climate.

He was the surprise of 2000, his seven tournament wins were the most of any player and climaxed with the U.S. Open win over Pete Sampras. He topped the ATP Entry System rankings at the beginning of this year.

But elbow and back ailment injuries have made 2001 a struggle for him and he reached only one final -- in Dubai, where he lost to Juan Carlos Ferrero -- before the back injury sidelined him.

He was beaten in his opening matches in three Masters Series events and last week was knocked out of a fourth at Hamburg in the second round.

Safin is still second in the ATP Entry System, but has slipped to 30th in the Champions Race, which is based on 2001 results.

"Last year I was beating everyone," said Safin. "I was like 'Marat Safin, this rising young Russian star' who could beat everyone.

"This year has been difficult. The back problem took a lot longer than I thought. I was playing great and then this."

And even when he returned, he found his opponents were raising their game against him.

"I've noticed they are all playing great tennis against me," Safin said. "Or maybe I make them play great."

Safin knows how satisfying it can be for a young player to upset someone from the top of the rankings. He reached the fourth round of the French Open in 1998, beating Andre Agassi en route.

"I know what it's like -- it's a double motivation for them to beat me," he said.

He said that his understanding of the game he has played almost his whole life -- his father is a tennis instructor -- has grown recently since he hired Mats Wilander, who won seven Grand Slam titles in his career, as his coach.

"Mats has helped me learn about how to win, how to be clever," Safin said. "People would ask me 'How did you beat Pete Sampras at the U.S. Open' and I would say 'I don't know. I just beat him'. I didn't realize 'how.'

"But now with Mats, I have learned more about 'how' to beat people. I have learned to be more clever."

Safin said he has enjoyed working with the stoic Swede.

"Mats doesn't really say a lot," Safin said. "I don't need someone telling me what to do all the time. I don't like it when coaches talk to much, try to teach you too much.

"If they talk to you from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. it drives you crazy. The guy lets me do what I want to do."

Despite his patchy performances this season, Safin believes he can justify his number two seeding at Roland Garros.

He said he feels fit and is glad some people view him as an outsider now.

"There's no pressure on me anymore, the pressure is on them," he said. "If I can get past the first two or three rounds I think I can be in the fight for the championship."