Struggling Safin Powers Through Russian Wins Easily Over Austrian

Source: International Herald Tribune
Publication date: 2001-05-30

So Marat Safin. You are undeniably one of the three most talented tennis players in the world. You have a two-handed backhand that even your new coach, Mats Wilander, would have traded up for. You can hit a first serve that leaves opponents shaking their heads and confirming their airline reservations. For a big man with a power game you even relish playing on clay.

So why are the pundits busy talking about Gustavo Kuerten and Juan Carlos Ferrero instead of you when it comes to prospective champions at the French Open this year?

Because you arrived at Roland Garros with a journeyman's record of 15-14 for the year. Because you played through back pain for the money for most of the early spring. And because your body language has been fluently negative of late.

But we all know your capabilities. We saw them at the U.S. Open last year, when you made the all-time great Pete Sampras look like an interested bystander on your way to your first Grand Slam title at age 20. And now, even though you have been down and out of sorts since January, we, you and your opponents know it is only a matter of time before that serve and that backhand and that rangy athleticism start to put big trophies back in your deft hands.

"There's only a little bit that separates the best guys," said Andre Agassi, who won easily on Tuesday and leads the points race this year, 29 spots ahead of the foundering Safin. "If you give up any edge that you have, I think you find yourself struggling a lot more than you could ever anticipate. I certainly have been through it in my own right, but he's been too good not to come around. The question is always when."

There were definite signs of life in the first round Tuesday, when Safin hustled convincingly past Austria's dangerous floater Markus Hipfl by the score of 6-3, 6-3, 6-7 (6-8), 6-1. There was still a shade too much looseness in Safin's tennis on this sunny afternoon: an untidy ground-

stroke here, a careless service return there. But what he did do was lift his game when he needed to most, which is essentially what separates the great from the good on the Darwinian men's circuit.

"He's been struggling physically the last two or three months, but he's better now," said Wilander, the former French Open champion who began coaching Safin this year. "He takes risks. That's the way he plays. It's kind of scary to watch it. It doesn't look safe, but he's able to do it."

When asked whether he thought he could still win this tournament despite the dominant play of Kuerten and Ferrero on clay this year, Safin answered: "I don't care what results they have. I mean it doesn't bother me at all. I'm coming here. I'm playing my game. I don't see who's winning, who's playing, who's losing. I'm just trying to get my confidence back, play some matches."

His plan is still to play seven, however. "I'm not coming here to make the last 16 or the quarterfinals," he said. "For me, it's nothing. I want to win here." Safin next faces Alex Calatrava of Spain.

Sampras might be the all-time leader in Grand Slam singles titles with 13, but he has never reached the final in Paris and has not advanced past the third round since 1996. On Tuesday, he gave yet another anonymous opponent plenty of hope but ultimately escaped with a 6-3, 4-6, 6-2, 3-6, 8-6 victory after saving three match points in the final set.

Sampras's 25-year-old opponent, the French qualifier Cedric Kauffmann, had played only two tour-level matches in his career. In January, he was beaten in a challenger in Hawaii by 44-year-old Gene Mayer, a former American star who had not played a tour event in 15 years. "That makes me feel real good," Sampras said.

Sampras will have to lift his level considerably and shake free of the baseline much more often if he is to get past a much more experienced clay-courter, Galo Blanco of Spain, in the next round.

Safin's biggest obstacle has been physical, but he says he now has only occasional pain in his lower back and can now serve normally. The pain began in February in Dubai, one month after he was beaten in the fourth round of the first Grand Slam event of the year, the Australian Open, by Dominik Hrbaty. The surprise was that he kept on playing and struggling through the first five Masters Series events.

Though such perseverance seemed foolhardy, Safin had his reason: a $1.4 million bonus from the ATP that is linked to participation in all nine Masters Series events. Miss one for any reason and you lose $350,000. Miss another and you lose $700,000. Miss three and you lose it all

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

It is indeed a short-term view, but Safin has made it clear that he has not yet assured his financial security. And for a young man who grew up in a country in transition (Russia) and left home at age 14 to train in Valencia with a Spanish coach, financial security is no trifling matter. He has parents and a younger sister, Dinara, to help, and she is also a potentially world-class player.

But for now, the best thing he can do is help himself: by plunging into his tennis; by getting more therapy on his back and by lending an ear to his coach, who knows a great deal more than most men about how to win under pressure in Paris.

"The thing about Marat," Wilander said, "is that he can raise his game as high as he wants to."