On the Upswing?

Following a disappointing eight months, Marat Safin may have found his stroke.

By L. Jon Wertheim

It wasn't merely a championship, it was a coronation. Or so it seemed when Marat Safin whipped Pete Sampras in straight sets in last year's U.S. Open final. Safin, then 20, blended a spring-loaded serve with a bludgeoning baseline game and was anointed the cynosure for the next generation in men's tennis. That he was handsome, outspoken and multilingual was a bonus. Even Sampras, generally sparing with his praise of other players, pegged Safin as the game's next big star. "Right then," Safin says, "I was the king."

His reign didn't last long. Without a tournament title in 2001, Safin entered the RCA Championships in Indianapolis last week on a three-match losing streak. He was a woeful 29th in the ATP's Champions Race and had a 21-20 record pocked by losses to players like Peter Wessels and Juan Balcells. "It's been disgusting," Safin said after narrowly beating journeyman Andre Sa on Aug. 14. "Right now, I'm impressing myself with how badly I'm playing."

Injuries were partially to blame for Safin's NASDAQian slide. A strained back he suffered in last March's Dubai tournament limited his mobility and, for months, made serving painful. Safin says that he should have rested, but, wary of forfeiting a portion of a $1.4 million ATP bonus for playing in all nine Masters Series events (he loses a third of the bonus for each of those tournaments he misses), he played when he was, by his estimate, only "30 percent." He was also bothered by an aching left knee that caused him to retire late in a recent match in Montreal.

As the losses accumulated, his already shaky psyche became fragile enough that it should have been swathed in bubble wrap. "Every time you lose a match, the doubts come," he says. This phenomenon manifested itself in inexplicable play. On one point he'd be unnecessarily defensive; on the next he'd be too aggressive and overhit. "You can tell he's not 100 percent sure of himself," said Xavier Malisse, who beat Safin last month in Los Angeles.

Safin also needed months to grow comfortable with a new Dunlop racket, the product of a lucrative endorsement deal he signed in April. And he has been adjusting to a new coach, Mats Wilander. "When Marat plays well, he can beat anyone," says Wilander, winner of seven Grand Slam events.

Safin can take solace in precedent. Last year he lost 12 of his first 17 matches, one so egregiously that he was fined $2,000 for tanking, and pondered quitting. Without notice -- "It was like magic," he says, shrugging -- his skills and confidence returned. He ended up winning a Tour-high seven titles, earned more than $3.5 million and came within a match of finishing 2000 as the points race champion. "Tennis is a sport of momentum," he says. "For me it's especially that way."

His fortunes may have begun to change again last week. After surviving Sa, he played some of his most inspired tennis this year. Whipping lasers from the baseline and belting serves approaching 130 mph, he reached his first semifinal since March and had a match point before losing 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (7) to Pat Rafter in an exceptionally high-quality match. "When the week started, I had no confidence," says Safin. "I'm not saying I'm going to win the U.S. Open now, but I feel like it's coming back."

Issue date: August 27, 2001