Safin unsure of U.S. hard court prospects

Reuters/HD - 07.20.2001

Russian Marat Safin heads into the U.S. hard court season unsure if he can come close to repeating his achievements of 12 months ago.

Last year on the American hardcourts the 21-year-old ran up an impressive 12-2 win-loss record ,capped by the finest title triumph of his career - at the U.S. Open. In the U.S. Open final he beat Pete Sampras, holder of a record 13 Grand Slam trophies, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.

"That moment was the best moment of my life, right after match point," said Safin, who ended the 2000 season as the number two player in the world behind Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten, during a teleconference on Thursday.

"It was the best moment, it felt so good, but I can't describe it. It was just perfect. You realise you won one of the biggest tournaments in the world only two seconds ago - it is the perfect feeling."

This year, however, he has yet to feel anything close to that.

Playing Juan Carlos Ferrero in the Dubai final in February, Safin trailed the Spaniard 6-2, 3-1 when he retired with a back injury. That injury kept him out of action for nearly two months and derailed his confidence. From a purely physical perspective, it now seems that Safin is back on track, having reached the Wimbledon quarter-finals before falling to eventual champion Goran Ivanisevic.

But the Russian is still sounding unsure of himself. "I'm much better than before when I was injured at the beginning of the year, right before the Indian Wells tournament," Safin said. "I didn't play for like one and a half months. I couldn't play. It was hard because I never knew when I could come back and start to play and start to play well. And I came back with no confidence."

Safin has a heavy U.S. summer schedule starting in Los Angeles next week and taking in Montreal, Cincinnati and Indianapolis before attempting to successfully defend his U.S. Open title. In one breath, Safin seems willing to write off the year and look ahead to 2002, but in the next he is hoping to recoup his losses and have a strong second half of the season.

"I'm completely recovered, but I don't know if I have enough confidence to play big matches," Safin said. "I think it's a little too late for this year but I hope to be better for next year.

"But it really depends on how I do in the States this summer. If I could win a few tournaments in America this summer, I could look to make the Masters [year-end Tennis Masters Cup] and that would be perfect for me."

The man in charge of boosting Safin's morale as well as putting his game into championship form is former world number one Mats Wilander. The Swede, a seven-time Grand Slam champion, became Safin's coach earlier this year. Safin seems certain that Wilander is the right man for him.

"Mats, I'm really happy to work with him," Safin said. "I'm learning a lot from him and I'm happy to be with him because it is a great experience. He's coming to Montreal and we'll start work there to get ready for the Open."

Always one to crack a joke, Safin deflected questions about his forthcoming U.S. Open defence by insisting that he has only one wish at Flushing Meadow.

"I think that the people in charge of transportation will recognise me this year and that would be great for me," said Safin, who went unrecognised by some of the transportation crew last year, even after reaching the final.