Strapping Safin Seeks Consistency in Paris

By Ossian Shine

To watch strapping muscleman Marat Safin play tennis is to recall poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's most enduring nursery rhyme.

There is no sign of a little curl on the Russian powerhouse's forehead but, when he is good he is very, very good and when he is bad he is horrid.

It is these poles of performance which have seen Safin triumph at the U.S. Open only months after suffering a humiliating first-round defeat at the Australian grand slam.

He has won the Masters event in Canada and just 12 months later slumped out at the first hurdle as defending champion.

One match sublime, the next error-strewn, Safin is as complex as he is talented.

The French Open, however, has been a stage of relative stability for the Moscow-born, Spanish-raised 22-year-old Safin.

Last year's third-round loss -- as second seed -- to bogeyman Fabrice Santoro was his poorest performance on the slow red clay of the Roland Garros stadium.

A quarter-final appearance in 2000, and two fourth-round showings before that, illustrate his comfort on the surface.


Safin will be seeded second again this year after a runners-up spot in the Australian Open in January and a runners-up spot on the Rothenbaum clay at the Hamburg Masters last week.

His confidence is high and he is looking forward to an assault on the French crown.

"I haven't won a tournament yet this year," Safin said after blasting world number one Lleyton Hewitt in the quarter-finals in Hamburg.

"I made a few quarter-finals (and) semifinals but I want to win a tournament and then it will be a different story -- I'm on my way to playing my best tennis."

Safin's best tennis is an awesome sight. He drove a dagger into Pete Sampras's career in New York two years ago.

The American holder of a record 13 grand slam titles had just won his seventh Wimbledon. Gunning to stretch the record to 14 slams, nothing could prepare him for the torrid thrashing he received at the hands of Safin in the U.S. Open final.

Having struggled in the early rounds, Safin lost just one set in his last four matches as he collected his first grand slam crown -- inflicting Sampras's first straight-sets defeat in a grand slam final.


Sampras was shell-shocked afterwards and predicted a long period of domination for the Russian.

That year Safin won a season-high seven ATP titles, briefly hit the number one spot and became the youngest player to finish the year ranked world number two since a 19-year-old Boris Becker in 1986.

Only a mammoth effort by Gustavo Kuerten, who won the end-of-season Masters Cup in Lisbon, prevented Safin from becoming the first Russian year-end number one.

But back problems in the early part of 2001 contributed to patchy form and he failed to reach a quarter-final of any event until Wimbledon in June.

As defending champion, he reached the semifinals in New York where Sampras got his revenge but it proved a breakthrough for the Russian and he went on to capture a 10th career title with the St. Petersburg crown.

Safin knows that on his day he can demolish anyone in the world. It is the consistency of his peers that he craves.

"This is very important, to keep your concentration," he says. "When you have won the first set you have to be careful in the beginning of the second set.

"I was, when I was young, number one," the 22-year-old Russian laughed in Hamburg. "I'm trying to get back there. That is my goal for sure. To be number one for a long time.


"But all this 'if I stay concentrated,' 'if I keep this level' -- it is no good.
"This if, if, if...if I do this and if I do that. I am like this.

"I have some weak points in my game. It is now important to be more consistent. I have to win more matches.
"If I play consistently, then I have the confidence and I'm more calm. Then it's like routine.
"Basically you just have to improve, to improve. Be more consistent. That is the main thing. Two years ago I couldn't volley, I have improved. I improved my forehand and my backhand.

"But I'm feeling very happy and satisfied. I'm first in the Champions' Race. So I'm well prepared for Roland Garros.
"I'm moving well and serving well. I have to make sure I'll be able to do the same when I get there."
If he does move the same, play the same and think the same when he hits the Parisian clay, expect to see Marat Safin pounding opponents well into the second week.

It can only be a matter of time before he adds to his grand slam haul.