Angry Safin mesmerised by Santoro

Sydney, Australia - 20 September 2000

Top-seeded Russian Marat Safin refused to blame his shock first round defeat at the Olympics tennis tournament on fatigue, saying he was just angry to be mesmerised yet again by Frenchman Fabrice Santoro.

"I'm angry with myself because I can't fight for the gold medal," the U.S. Open champion said. "I'm angry because I couldn't make it to the number one in the world. I'm angry because I'm losing to Santoro and I'm angry because of the chair umpire.

But mainly I'm angry at myself." Santoro made it five career wins without defeat against the strapping, 20-year-old Russian, who had just arrived in Sydney from Tashkent.

He won a tournament there on Sunday after travelling straight to Uzbekistan from New York following his stunning U.S. Open triumph over Pete Sampras.

Safin arrived in Sydney at 5 a.m. on Tuesday but would not blame his defeat by Santoro on fatigue or jet lag.

"I'm not old. I'm 20 years old. I have enough energy to play. "I was fit. It's not a physical problem because I think I played a great, great first set. And I played also in the third set. So it's not the problem."

The problem is Santoro, a master of disguise and change of pace, who upsets the hard-hitting Russian's rhythm with his off-beat assortment of slices, drop shots and top spin drives.

Then there's the mental game, where Santoro also excels against Safin, anticipating the Russian's moves like a mind reader, gliding over to the appropriate side of the court when the Russian has a choice of where to drive a ball.

"Most of the time I can read his game pretty well," said the 27-year-old Frenchman, whose uncanny ability to guess right clearly irritated Safin.

"But even if I know exactly where he's going to put the ball and everything, he's a great player, so he's tough to beat."

Safin said later he was upset at the chair umpire for not overruling what he thought was an obviously bad call against him in the ninth game of the third set, but in the end the Russian had only himself to blame.

"Somehow, I don't know why, I just give him the match," Safin said about the spell Santoro puts him under. "I gave him the second set. I had to fight for it, and I was trying to fight but my concentration was just gone and it was a mistake.

But I think next time I'm 100 percent sure. I was very close today to beat him." Safin will likely get another shot soon at Santoro, but a run for Olympic gold will have to wait four more years.

Larry Fine