Marat Safin will 'go for everything' en route to Open

by Bill Scott

July 25, Rome

As he crosses the Atlantic Ocean to start a summer campaign that leads to an attempt to defend his U.S. Open crown, Marat Safin is aiming to take on some of the more aggressive characteristics of the fearful Russian bear as he battles for survival on the hard courts.

The power-stroking Safin is not exactly an endangered species in the pro game, but 21-year-old from Moscow is determined to fight for his life. 'I'll be tough out there,' said Safin, who is starting his campaign at the Mercedes Benz Cup in Los Angeles. 'I'll go for everything -- I'll fight like a dog.'

His performance may include a few tricks: 'I'll jump, I'll dive, I will be there. I'll do everything possible to win some tournaments.'

Taking a page from the book of Andre Agassi's coach Brad Gilbert, the results might not be pretty, but that's not the point: 'I don't care about anything else, I just want to win. It doesn't matter how, if it's going to be an ugly match or a nice match,' he said. 'I want to beat everybody, I want to get my game like it was last year.'

The Russian is carrying memories of an outstanding 2000 season in the United States. A year ago, the young talent made his breakthough on a surface where he had nurtured many doubts. The clay-bred European won the Masters Series title in Toronto, lost the final at Indianapolis to Gustavo Kuerten and then stunned Pete Sampras in three sets at Flushing Meadows to take the U.S. Open title.

But the start of 2001 was not too rosy, as the contender slumped through a back injury in the closing stages of the Dubai tournament in Februry. And after a clay season to forget, Safin has slowly recovered his fitness and now is taking tentative steps back to world-class form.

While his physical form is strengthening, the wild card remains in his mental form.

'When you're coming back from an injury you don't have much confidence and you don't play well. I'm completely recovered -- the problem is that I don't have enough confidence to play big matches,' said the Russian.

'But I'm looking ahead. I think it's going to come, but perhaps it's already too late for this year.'

Like many of his countrymen, Safin exhibits a healthy dose of Russian pessimism. But it took only one Wimbledon title, for example, for Goran Ivanisevic to vault up close to the Top 10 in the Champions Race earlier this month after lingering in the depths for the past 18 months. It may not even take a tennis miracle for the same to happen to Safin, who currently stands 20th alongside Sampras and well within striking distance of the elite.

Safin called his current form 'about 60 percent' of his best. 'I haven't won enough tough matches, so things can be difficult,' he explained. 'Last year I didn't have any doubts and everything was perfect: My condition was perfect and I was full of confidence. I was playing great and, actually, not many people could touch me.'

Safin knows better than anyone exactly what targets he must hit if he wants to resurrect his sharp game. Last year the Russian complied a standard-setting 12-2 record heading into the Open, where he certainly was not reckoned as a serious contender, let alone an eventual champion after his unexpected demolition of Sampras.

Coasting somewhat on his success, he finished last year with seven titles as No. 2 in the world behind Gustavo Kuerten. Now Safin's playing L.A. for the first time and hoping to mark a smooth transition between clay tennis and the cement. The slow clay surface ended on a high note as Safin won the Stuttgart title last week.

The player and coach Mats Wilander have mapped a full schedule for August and the first half of September. After Los Angeles, Safin will travel to Montreal to defend the Canadian title he claimed over Israeli Harel Levy, then visit Cincinnati, Indianapolis and New York.

With that long stretch of strength-sapping events ahead of him, Safin now knows the importance of fitness and staying in form for the long haul on the most punishing surface in the game. 'I think I'm healthy and everything is perfect,' he said. 'I'm happy with this, I'm starting to play better. Of course, I will go for everything -- I want to win a tournament in America.'