Confident Safin ready to...

Confident Safin ready to sow seeds of success on grass Neil Harman reports that the Russian believes he is in line for his most successful Wimbledon.

Source: The Sunday Telegraph - London
Publication date: 2001-06-24

It says a lot about Marat Safin that, as the first recipient of the title `Most Quotable Player of the Year' from the International Tennis Writers' Association, he promptly refused to attend his next press conference of any significance and left the quotes cupboard dry.
The journalists who had voted for him felt more than a touch of embarrassment when Safin was docked $10,000 for his behaviour after he was beaten in the third round of Roland Garros by Fabrice Santoro. But Safin, who has always had to be handled with due care and attention, was told he had to speak to the press and stormed away. An arm around the shoulder, a proper cooling-off period and all might have been well.

In this day and age, though, no-one is prepared to wait a while. The instant gratification of the on court, or even worse, the off- court interview when the player can hardly breath and often leaves the chair stained in sweat, is all the rage and Safin is a man who needs to simmer slowly. There is a restless urge about the 21-year- old Russian that cannot be rushed.

We chat for 20 minutes and he doesn't want to let go of the cap perched on his head for fear that if he released his grip, the evocative emotions bubbling in his head will cause an explosion. When he speaks you might expect him to express himself in the powerful manner in which we believe all Russians speak, instead you have to lean towards him to pick up what he is saying.

Is this the racket smasher of old Moscow Town, the man who has had more mangled frames than hot samovars? Well, Dunlop certainly hope Safin has conquered the rage after their mega-dollar link with the player to endorse their new range. It is with this black-rimmed, black-handled implement that he hopes to do real damage on grass for the first time.

Safin's record at Wimbledon is played three, won one, which hardly befits the highest-ranked player in the field, the young man who took the sport by storm nine months ago with a bravura performance in New York, his straight sets defeat of Pete Sampras in the final coming as close to perfection as anything the great man himself had produced on his favoured grass.

"Those kind of weeks can happen," he says, "people who have qualified for the second week of a Grand Slam have passed through tough matches and won and there will for sure be matches you should have lost when you have struggled. All of sudden, you start to play huge tennis, no-one can stop you and that is what happened to me at Flushing Meadow.

"Nobody had a chance against me. I hope it will be this way in these two weeks. It's going well on the grass. I think this year will be successful because I am prepared, I have a coach (Swede Mats Wilander, who was three times a Wimbledon quarter-finalist in the late Eighties) and I'm hitting the ball very good. I know the grass, it doesn't matter they say they've improved it, it's going to be the same thing like always, some bad points and not many rallies, it's not going to change. But I want to play."

For Safin, the desire to be out there is everything. Imagine the lad locked up for any period of time, he would go mad. When he does smile, it's no wonder he is said to melt a female heart from 10 paces. Only a couple of times during an autograph-signing session in the John Lewis store on Oxford Steet could he manage to raise his eyes above the level of his peaked cap.

"He's not a morning person," said the ebullient Andy Fyfe, who has the unenviable task this fortnight of handling the twin combustive personalities that are Safin and Goran Ivanisevic. Safin would probably have preferred a lie-in that morning but there was work to be done, people to be seen, opinions to be extracted.

You have to pinch yourself a little to realise that the young fuzzy-cheeked man came within a match of being crowned world No 1 in 2000. Safin won seven titles in the year, becoming the youngest player to finish No 2 in the world since the 19-year-old Boris Becker in 1986. He was also the first under 21 to win as many championships in one year since Wilander in 1983 - the year the Swede won the Australian Open and just failed to retain his Roland Garros title when he succumbed to Yannick Noah.

"Don't forget also," says Safin, "that when I started in 2000 I was 25 in the world and, after four months when I couldn't win a match, I was down to 48. And when suddenly my attitude changed with a new coach [the droll Russian, Andrei Chesnokov] I won back-to-back titles, won two Masters Series titles, a Grand Slam and got to No 1. I have to be satisfied to finish the year No 2.

Safin does not believe his preference for the back of the court hinders his prospects. Anyone who can nullify Sampras so completely as he did at the US Open last September bears consideration whether you are playing on grass or sand. "Guys like Borg and Agassi have won this tournament," he says. "It can be the same this time, why not?

"If I feel good about myself then nobody can stop me, actually. They don't have a chance against me. My problem is getting the confidence in the first place and I have that now."