Safin isn't first to face rough patch

Tuesday, August 28
Safin isn't first to face rough patch
By Greg Garber

NEW YORK -- A year ago, the very axis of men's tennis tilted on this single freeze-frame:

Marat Safin, young, handsome and looking like he'd been there before, held the U.S. Open championship trophy aloft, while Pete Sampras, giving away three inches, 20 pounds, nine years and more than a few strands of hair, stood behind, clutching the runner's-up plate and looking longingly at Safin's sterling cup. "He's the future of the game," Sampras said later. "He's going to win many majors. It was weird. Usually at the ceremony, I get to hold up the big trophy." You want weird? A year later -- even with Safin mired in a disastrous, injury-riddled season that still lacks a tournament victory -- Sampras could still be right. Like Safin, Sampras won his first Grand Slam here at the National Tennis Center at a tender age (19). It's long forgotten now, but Sampras failed to win a single one of the next 10 majors played before adding 12 more Grand Slams to his record total. Is Safin, still a tender 21, feeling the pressure of being the defending champion?

"I don't really care," he said Monday night after dispatching qualifier Sebastien De Chaunac 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 in a rain-delayed, first-round пїЅ OK, if I don't defend, what's going to happen? Nothing. I have nothing to defend next year. It's perfect! пїЅ

English is merely the Russian's second language, but he has a wonderful feel for expressing sarcasm. While no one is predicting that Safin will repeat his break-through 2000 performance, there is evidence that he has survived the dreaded season-after with reasonable aplomb. Although the draw is impossibly loaded against him -- Sampras, top-seeded Andre Agassi and Patrick Rafter are all on his side of the draw -- Safin could do some damage.

"I'm coming here again, I'm coming here to win it," Safin said. "For me, [it] would not be enough if I make quarterfinals or semifinals. I still have a chance. I'm still in draw, and I'm playing OK. I will fight and I will give everything. I want to win, definitely."

Safin's Law
In terms of sheer talent, Safin is among a mere handful of players, male or female, in the world. And yet, there have been times this year when Safin has genuinely wondered what will go wrong next. And sure enough, something always does. How frustrating has it been for the player who won 73 of 100 matches and an ATP-high seven titles last year to wind up with the No. 2 ranking?

Safin laughed. "There's so many that you cannot -- it will not -- we don't have enough time."
Here's a quick stab:

Safin, who admittedly came into the year exhausted from his impressive second half run, exited in the Round of 16 at the Australian Open in straight sets courtesy of Dominik Hrbaty. He was bounced in the first round at Rotterdam by Max Mirnyi -- the first of seven first-round ousters in 17 events -- and then injured his back in Dubai in February despite reaching the final there.

It is ironic that Safin, the only player in modern history to receive a fine ($2,000 at last year's Australian Open) for tanking a match, would seemingly soldier on so heroically. He lost three consecutive first-round matches in Indian Wells, Miami and Monte Carlo, then lost in the second round in Rome and Hamburg. It turned out that Safin had motivation, a financial motivation.

Safin was playing through the ATP's Masters Series events for a $1.4 million bonus that is linked to participation in all nine events. The price for missing just one of these tournaments is $350,000. Missing two costs $700,000. Miss three and there is no bonus at all.

"People can criticize me and say I just play for the money," Safin said in May, "but if they knew what that meant and were in my situation, they would do the same thing."

From a different mold
Safin is not a Stanford-educated athlete who grew up playing at a posh country club. He was born in Moscow and was shipped to Valencia, Spain, at the age of 14 to master the game of tennis. He turned professional in 1997, but his first three years on the Tour netted him less than $1 million, which puts his insistence on playing for that bonus in a different context.

Earlier this year, People Magazine named Safin one of the 25 most intriguing people in the world and his potential alone makes him difficult to dismiss. He is still relatively quite young; he has broken, by his count, more than 150 rackets to date.

In the spring, a steadying influence arrived unexpectedly in his life. Safin has been coached over the years by Spaniard Rafael Mensua and has received guidance from Russians Andrei Chesnokov and Alexander Volkov. Now six-time Grand Slam winner Mats Wilander is attempting to temper the man with the volatile temper.

Wilander, who was raising four children in the suburbs of Connecticut and whittling his golf handicap into the single digits, saw Safin play last year and told a number of disbelieving people that he had the capacity to win the U.S. Open. They were introduced by a mutual friend and have been carving out a relationship that could carry Safin to the top of the game.

"The results are not coming straight away," Safin acknowledged. "You have to wait. First we have to work for three or four months, then it's coming. Slowly, [results] start to come. You can't rush.

"If he stays with me for a long time, I think I can win a few more Grand Slams."

Few, including perhaps Safin himself, believe that it will be this one. His confidence, thanks to Wilander, is just starting to come around.

Safin reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, losing to eventual champion Goran Ivanisevic. After losing his first-round match in Cincinnati earlier this month, Safin came back the next week and belted his way to the semifinals, where he lost a stout three-set match in a tiebreaker to Patrick Rafter.

"I'm trying to make some good results," Safin said. "And it would be great if I could make -- I mean, it's going to be a miracle if I can win here because the way I played all year, it's a joke.

"But I'm there. I'm trying. I'm still fighting and I think I can," he said. "Everything is possible, huh?"

Greg Garber is a senior writer for