Surging Safin eyes November treble


What a difference a week makes. Marat Safin had been dogged by inconsistency throughout 2002. But after winning his first tournament of the year in Paris, the 22-year old Russian could now complete a November treble by winning the Masters Cup and lifting the Davis Cup for Russia.

One month ago, while France were cruising past the United States in the Davis Cup semi-finals, Marat Safin and team-mate Yevgeni Kafelnikov were struggling to scrape past Argentina. They even lost the doubles 19-17 in the deciding fifth set to the lesser-known duo of Lucas Arnold and David Nalbandian.

One week ago, Marat Safin carried a 13 month-title drought into the Paris Indoor Masters. He had fallen short of his second Australian Open losing in the final to Thomas Johansson. He�d gone down in the semis at the French, and was bounced out of the second round at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Even in Moscow, he could manage no better than runner-up, losing to unseeded Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu.

Safin a burnout victim? Not so fast.

World number one Lleyton Hewitt got crushed by the third seed 7-6 6-0 6-4 in Sunday's final.

"He played a magnificent match," said the Australian. "He has been just too good for everybody in the draw this week and I've just got to take my hat off to him."

The difference was power. Hewitt has the speed, the spirit, and all of the basic shots, but Safin served harder, hit blistering groundstrokes, and pulled out deft touches around the net which left Hewitt helpless.

Pundits also note the former world number one�s switch in coaches, going in mid-season from Mats Wilander to Andrei Cherkasov.

Whatever the reason for the revival, Sunday�s performance means France�s Davis Cup captain Guy Forget now has to rethink his line-up.

French number one Sebatien Grosjean was unceremoniously bounced from the Bercy tournament by Carlos Moya on Thursday. Grosjean was leading until Moya saved six match points and won the match. French number two Arnaud Clement lost in the second round in Paris and the great young hope who recently beat Safin, Paul-Henri Mathieu, is not expected to return in time from a back injury.

Fabrice Santoro has a 6-1 lead in head-to-heads with Safin, but the 29-year old is not as strong as he used to be and currently lies 35th in the ATP Race. The only French player on current form, Nicolas Escude, unbeaten in Davis Cup play and who stretched Safin to three sets in the quarter-finals in Paris, is a serve-and-volleyer.

And that�s where the French might wind up kicking themselves :

Captain Forget chose clay for the final with Grosjean in mind, but that�s not Escude�s strong suit. Safin however went to the semis this year at the French Open, and Kafelnikov won Roland Garros in 1996.

Safin himself rubbed salt in the wound in Paris last week: "I don't know why they chose the clay," he said. "I think they are trying to use it against us, but it also doesn't suit them. They don't really have claycourt players."

But first, there�s the Masters Cup. The road to the Davis Cup final goes through Shangai. For a preview of what�s to come in Paris, study the fortunes of one Marat Safin.