His hometown of Moscow may be the epicenter of tumult and chaos, but everything about Marat Safin suggests stability and grace, from his disposition to his strokes to his steady climb in the rankings. Safin, 18 and now No. 60, plays with an efficiency and dignified power that recalls Pete Sampras, the player to whom he finally capitulated after winning his first three U.S. Open matches. "He has the ability to be in the Top 10 very soon," said Safin's first-round victim, 24th-ranked Magnus Gustafsson. "He hits his backhand as hard and consistently as anyone on tour."

At age 14 Safin moved to Valencia, Spain, to train with coach Rafael Mensua. Safin plays Davis Cup for Russia and frequently visits his family in Moscow, but he's a full-fledged Western teenager. "This trip to New York, he was most excited when he walked around Times Square and bought a laptop computer on Fifth Avenue," said Mensua, who communicates with Safin in Spanish. "His game needs work, especially his volley, but he plays like a pro."

In keeping with his namesake, this revolutionary Marat knows about wielding a dagger at an opportune moment. He punctuated his Open win over Thomas Muster with a 130-mph ace on match point. Asked afterward if he liked his chances of winning the tournament, Safin laughed and said, "No. Right now I need to improve too much." Says Mensua: "By next year it could be a different story."


09/14/98 Sports Illustrated