Safin topples Hrbaty after slow start

November 12, 2000 ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP)

In a city named after a czar, Marat Safin hopes to have staked his claim to being the king of tennis.

Safin captured his first title in his homeland and cemented his return to the top of the ATP Champions Race 2000 standings Sunday with a come-from-behind victory in the final of the $800,000 St. Petersburg Open.

Seeded No. 1 at this indoor tournament, Safin rallied past third seed Dominik Hrbaty of Slovakia 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 to win his sixth title of the season -- tops on the ATP Tour this year.

"It's very nice to win a tournament in Russia and especially become the leader here in the Race (of Champions)," said Safin. "And it's great that it's one Russian guy who's won more titles this year (than any other player).

"Dominik broke me in the first set and it was hard to get my game started," Safin said. "I wasn't prepared for how forceful he was playing. In the second set, he broke me and I got really angry. After that I became more relaxed and accurate and could start playing my tennis. The third set was very different tennis. It's not the best tennis I've played, but I'm getting close now. Maybe another match and I'll be better."

By reaching the semifinals at this indoor event, he overtook French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten in the standings that will decide the No. 1 player in the world at the end of the season.

"Finally I found my confidence. I'll be going 100 percent in Paris (next week), because I'll need the points. I want to be in good shape in Lisbon (the final tournament of the year)."

One turning point in the match for Safin was when, out of frustration, he broke his racquet and a piece of graphite went into his arm. Jurgen Dess, ATP Tour trainer, was called to the court to remove it.

"Sometimes breaking a racquet helps," added Safin. "You let out all the bad energy -- you have to let it out somehow. And then you get calmer. It's an injury I think I can live with. I said sorry to Dominik and everyone, and afterward we showed some great tennis. Also, I think a little drama in the final never hurts."

The 20-year-old from Moscow, who won his first Grand Slam at the U.S. Open in September, came close to glory at home, reaching the semifinals at this event last year and at the Kremlin Cup two weeks ago. He earned $109,000 for the tournament victory -- the seventh of his career -- and leads the men's circuit with $2,408,709 in prize money.

Safin made numerous errors in dropping the first set but cleaned up his game in the second to level the match. He broke Hrbaty's serve in the third game to take a 2-1 lead and rode his powerful serve -- collecting 14 aces and just one double fault -- to his first indoor title.

Hrbaty was hoping to win his third career title and knocked off his second straight crowd favorite. He beat Safin's compatiot, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, in Saturday's semifinals and his play this weekend bodes well for Slovakia's chances against Russia in the first round of next year's Davis Cup tie.

"I didn't need anything. I needed Marat to hit less winners," said Hrbaty, who was not affected by the interuption to Safin's hand injury. He said to me, 'Sorry that you have to wait.' I said 'It was OK, you hurt yourself -- not me.' "

However, Hrbaty could not pull off the upset and is winless in two finals this season.