Bloodied Safin fights off hard man Philippoussis

By John Roberts in Paris
20 November 2000

Marat Safin's first act as he youngest men's world No 1 since computer rankings began in 1973 was to split his shorts. His second act was to split an eyebrow with his racket. And his third act was to win the closest of split decisions against Mark Philippoussis in a heavyweight final of the Paris Indoor Championships yesterday, 3-6, 7-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6.

The daft part is that the 20-year-old Russian пїЅ two and a half months younger than John McEnroe when the American was crowned No 1 in 1980 пїЅ has risen without trace, his feat unrecognised by the ATP Tour, even though he sits atop both their Champions Race and 52-week entry system this morning.

Having walloped Pete Sampras to win the United States Open in September, Safin has now overtaken the Californian as leader of the system for tournament entry and seedings. But the ATP Tour, eager to promote the Champions Race, are waiting for the conclusion of the Masters Cup in Lisbon at the end of the month in order to be able to declare the year-end No 1.

"When I get to Lisbon, I have to play good tennis to show them I'm not the yo-yo from Moscow," Safin said.

Safin enjoyed a joke with the crowd while changing his shorts on the court after splitting them during the warm-up, but he had a few light moments afterwards and following his interview he went to hospital to have his right eyebrow stitched.

He thought he might have to retire from the match after accidentally hitting himself with his racket frame during a tumble to the court in a vain dive to intercept a shot with Philippoussis serving at 3-3, 15-30 in the third set. What followed was like a scene from a boxing match. The tournament doctor, Bernard Mantalvan, worked hard to staunch the twocentimetre vertical wound.

"If the blood hadn't stopped and I would have had to have had treatment all the time, the delays wouldn't have been fair to my opponent, who was running like a dog," Safin said.

Plasters on the cut and ice packs during change-overs kept Safin going for the three hours and 29 minutes of the contest, even though he had to contend with a severe headache. He managed to break Philippoussis in that seventh game and went on to take a two sets to one lead.

Philippoussis had cause to rue the three break points he failed to convert with Safin serving at 4-4 in the second set. Instead, the Australian was dragged into a tie-break, which he lost, 9-7, on his opponent's fourth set point, after recovering from 5-1 down to 6-6.

Excitement was added to the drama when Philippoussis levelled the match by winning the fourth set after breaking for 4-2. Both men appeared to be tiring, but neither was prepared to give way in a test of nerve and endurance in the final set.

Only 12 points were won against serve in the 12 games leading to the tie-break in the fifth set, and four consecutive games were held to love. If Safin was groggy, he disguised it well.

This concluding tie-break was a minor classic. Philippoussis was first to lead, 3-1, but then lost the next two points on his serve and faced three match points after Safin sped to 6-3. The Australian served away the first two, and Safin missed a forehand volley on the third.

Try as he might, Philippoussis was unable to regain the initiative, but he saved two more match points before Safin lured him into hitting a forehand wide across court on the sixth.

The closeness of the match was reflected in the statistics. Both players hit 22 aces, but Safin only double-faulted twice compared to nine by his opponent.

"I think I showed Mark too much respect in the beginning," Safin said. "I was thinking too much, because I saw his matches and he impressed me very much."

As for being No 1, he said: "I think I'm playing great tennis, and I've won enough tournaments to show it. I'm not lucky, nobody [in my position] is. At this moment, I am No 1. Maybe some people don't like it, but that's life."


Ilie Nastase, Romania, 23 Aug 1973: 27 yrs 1 month
John Newcombe, Australia, 3 June 1974: 30 yrs 11 days
Jimmy Connors, United States, 29 July 1974: 21 yrs 11 months
Bjorn Borg, Sweden, 23 Aug 1977: 21 yrs 2 months
John McEnroe, United States, 3 March 1980: 21 yrs 15 days
Ivan Lendl, Czechoslovakia, 28 Feb 1983: 22 yrs 11 months
Mats Wilander, Sweden, 12 Sept 1988: 24 yrs 1 month
Stefan Edberg, Sweden, 13 Aug 1990: 24 yrs 9 months
Boris Becker, Germany, 28 Jan 1991: 23 yrs 2 months
Jim Courier, United States, 10 Feb 1992: 21 yrs 5 months
Pete Sampras, United States, 12 April 1993: 21 yrs 8 months
Andre Agassi, United States, 10 April 1995: 24 yrs 11 months
Thomas Muster, Austria, 12 Feb 1996: 28 yrs 4 months
Marcelo Rios, Chile, 30 March 1998: 22 yrs 3 months
Carlos Moya, Spain, 15 March 1999: 22 yrs 6 months
Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Russia, 3 May 1999: 25 yrs 2 months
Patrick Rafter, Australia, 26 July 1999: 26 yrs 8 months
Marat Safin, Russia, 20 Nov 2000: 20 yrs 10 months