Now No. 1, Safin may have to grow up to stay there

November 14, 2000
By Sergei Sviridov SportsTicker Contributing Writer

MOSCOW (TICKER) -- Two weeks ago, Marat Safin lost in the semifinals of the Kremlin Cup, disappointing Russian fans and foes alike.

"(I) felt sorry for Marat because, indeed, he could have taken the lead in the ATP rankings the next week," said countrymate Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who went on to win the tournament. "I am really upset that he couldn't lead the ATP race. It would be a great way to raise his psychological confidence for the next 4-5 tournaments left for the rest of the year."

Apparently, Safin did not need to win at Moscow to gain the top spot or any psychological confidence. On Sunday, he won the St. Petersburg Open and overtook Brazil's Gustavo Kuerten as the leader in the ATP Champions Race 2000.

During the Kremlin Cup, Safin said he had serious plans to be No. 1 in the world. Now that he has gotten there, the dedication involved in staying there may conflict with his desire to enjoy life to its fullest.

For example, the night before his semifinal loss in the Kremlin Cup, Safin, 20, played doubles late into the night with Denis Golovanov, a long-time friend whom he has committed to sponsor and support in every way. The next day, however, Safin looked winded and less than himself in a loss to David Prinosil.

Last month, The Moscow Times published a wire service report in which Alexander Volkov, the director of the tournament and Safin's friend and former coach, said his former pupil has an affinity for the nightlife here.

"If he goes out to a nightclub, even if he stays there until four in the morning, that does not mean he drinks like a horse," Volkov said. "He has one or two beers, which is enough. It doesn't bother him. He gets enough sleep, then goes out on the court and trains."

Safin later clarified that description of his behavior off the court.

"(I) am not hiding!" he declared. "The thing is, I like to socialize with friends, listen to the music, sometimes have some good wine. The main thing is to control oneself".

In fact, Safin knows perfectly well he must focus solely on tennis. When a very pushy female journalist from local TV tried to pin him down by asking for an interview in the cloak room of the Swiss Diamond Hotel in Moscow, where Marat had to attend a meeting with Russian dignitaries, Safin implored, "Why do they have to accost me like this?"

Even though Safin made a narrow escape from the pushy TV reporter, he had a plate full of other unrelated activities. He attended two official meetings -- one with Georgy Poltavchenko, the head of the Central Federal District and Vadim Kozhin, the head of the Presidential Staff, and another with mayor Yuri Luzhkov.

Last month, Safin also joined a large Russian internet company that will require him to answer fans' queries via e-mail. Throw in the nightclubs -- of which he is an aficionado -- and perhaps you understand why he resumed his old habit of breaking rackets in his loss to Prinosil.

However, Safin said his behavior comes from putting pressure on himself to achieve the sustained greatness of a Pete Sampras.

"Sometimes I get scared I won't have such a good chance again," he said. "I am trying hard, but I will never be Sampras. I am still developing." After losing the Kremlin Cup, Safin did not beat himself up. Instead, he was out at Most -- a very new, very chic nightclub.

After all, he is young, handsome and rich, and that he enjoys life makes him even more attractive to the tennis public.

Safin knows he is young but also is aware he will not be young forever. He sounds like he knows the top spot in tennis is not reached by hanging out in nightclubs.

"There are 1,000 players out there who also want to become No. 1," he said. "To become No. 1 is possible, but to hang in there is a different story altogether."