For maturing Safin, the future is now

PHILADELPHIA (Sports Network) - At only 20 years of age and playing on the same circuit as the legendary Pete Sampras, it would appear as though the hard-hitting Marat Safin would have to wait to claim his perch atop the men' tennis world. But the Russian Rocket decided the future is now with his shocking straight-set dismantling of Pistol Pete in the 2000 U.S. Open final.

Did the unexpected victory signal a changing of the guard in men's tennis?

In the early part of this season, Safin was plagued by on- and off-court struggles. But the machine-like racquet man has righted the ship and laid claim as the man to beat on the world tennis stage right now.

Sampras witnessed the super Safin up close and personal in the U.S. Open championship match, where the mighty Pete, seeking a fifth singles title in the Big Apple, was rudely whipped by the 6-foot-4 bomber, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. In the process, Safin became the first-ever Russian to capture the U.S. Open and the youngest Grand Slam victor since Sampras turned the trick 10 years ago.

No one had been so soundly beaten in the Open final since Stefan Edberg carved up Jim Courier, 6-2, 6-4, 6-0, in 1991. And no former champion had lost so badly since Jimmy Connors caved against Manuel Orantes, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, in 1975.

Oddly enough, Sampras returned to the top of the ATP Tour Singles Entry System (a.k.a the world rankings), thanks in part to his 2000 Wimbledon title and the U.S. Open final appearance. Meanwhile, Safin, after ending 1999 as the 25th-ranked player in the world, has skyrocketed to No. 2.

Sampras was also No. 1 in the new-for-2000 Champions Race following the Open, but he was just supplanted by Safin, who immediately followed up his New York heroics by titling in Uzbekistan this past week.

Safin (SAH-feen) wiped up the Arthur Ashe Stadium DecoTurf with one of, if not the greatest, tennis players of all-time, stunning those who watched with his blazing aces, unconscious returns and non- stop winners, much to the chagrin of the 13-time Grand Slam titlist. Safin also broke Sampras' serve on four occasions, which is just unheard of, considering Pete had only been broken four times in the entire tournament approaching Championship Sunday.

Asked how he returned Sampras' serve with such alacrity and accuracy, Safin replied, "You think I know?"

Sampras entered the U.S. Open final with a brilliant 13-2 record in Grand Slam title matches, but exited the encounter against Safin with a worst-ever loss in a championship tilt.

The young Russian smothered the seven-time Wimbledon champion like a seasoned veteran -- even though he entered the showdown as a raw, unaccomplished performer. Safin blasted his way to the title with a ferocious two-fisted backhand, bruising forehand, monstrous serve, and a feathery touch not usually seen in a big man.

Following the setback against Safin, Sampras referred to his slayer as "the future of tennis."

More questions than answers usually accompanied Safin heading into this season, as his inability to overcome outside distractions generally took away from his potentially potent game. But at the "America's Open" fortnight, Safin used weapons like a 136-mile-per- hour serve to destroy Sampras in only one hour and 38 minutes. The aggressive Russian refused to let Pete break his serve, and fired 12 aces of his own at the Grand Slam king.

Oddly enough, Safin considered retiring from tennis as recently as March of this year. He wasn't playing particularly well, or giving 100 percent on the court for that matter. His then long-time coach, Rafeal Mensua, insisted that Safin had to work hard, but the now-star continued to dog it on the court.

Safin continued to struggle mightily, suffering a series of first-round losses -- five straight at one point -- to the likes of Ivan Ljubicic, Grant Stafford, Andreas Vinciguerra, Dominik Hrbaty, Fabrice Santoro and Gaston Gaudio -- all before the end of April. Safin lost to Vinciguerra again in the second round in Miami, after receiving a first-round bye, meaning he lost his first match of a tournament seven times before catching fire in the new millennium.

At this year's first Grand Slam event -- the Australian Open -- Safin was fined $2,000 for not giving his best effort during an opening-round match against the South African Stafford, who prevailed in straight sets, 7-6, 6-4, 6-1.

But Safin's year -- and career for that matter -- turned around when Andrei Chesnokov, his new coach at the time, convinced his fellow Russian to give it everything he's got out there, rather than tanking matches and smashing racquets (48 last year and 36 this season) -- behavior not very becoming of a champion, like the one he is now.

His turnaround came in Barcelona back in April when he beat another rising star, Juan Carlos Ferrero, in the final there.

Safin, who mixes pure power and great athleticism, then went on to title in Mallorca and Toronto, and also appeared in finals in Hamburg and Indianapolis before snatching the U.S. Open. He subdued Sampras in the quarterfinals in Toronto en route to the Tennis Masters Series championship there.

When asked how he was able to turn around his season to become the hottest player on the tour, Safin said, "Probably I grow up. I start to understand that if I want to be a good player, I have to be a little bit more professional, I have to practice a little bit more? Everybody told me, 'Come on, man, fight. One day everything going to come, the confidence, the strokes. Start to fight.' I start to practice with the head, not with the strokes, and everything came. Now I try to keep this situation, to keep this confidence. It's working."

The Moscow native, who at the age of 5 was hitting tennis balls alongside another Russian -- Anna Kournikova -- turned pro in 1997. By 1998, he was the ATP's "Player to Watch."

Safin has been surrounded by tennis since his birth. Both parents are athletes, and his mother played at Roland Garros. She now coaches Marat's sister Dinara.

Growing up, Safin played ice hockey...but preferred tennis. By the age of 14, his folks secured him a sponsor and sent him to Spain for specialized tennis instruction, and he became particularly strong on clay. In 1997, Marat moved from No. 450 in the world to No. 194, and he would break into the Top-50 and Top-25 over the next two years.

The young Russian is now set to compete in Sydney's 2000 Olympic Games, where he will be the top seed in the men's draw.

Safin's engaging personality -- demonstrated on the "Late Show with David Letterman" one day after winning the U.S. Open -- is one that can transcend any cultural obstacles here in the U.S. And that combined with his immense tennis skills should keep his star shining brightly for many years to come.