A question of confidence

Marat Safin in 2000
courtesy atptour.org

Though Marat Safin was denied an official crowning at the Tennis Masters Cup Lisboa, his No. 2 finish in the inaugural ATP Champions Race proves testimony to why the Russian is considered the future of tennis.

Hailed as one of tennis' top-rising talent, the "New Balls Please" campaign star Safin padded his year 2000 resume with seven titles in eight months. Impressive, no?

However, after two-straight fourth-round finishes at Roland Garros, and then a victory in Boston to make him one of only three teenagers after Lleyton Hewitt and Juan Carlos Ferrero to take a title in 1999, Safin's anticipated year 2000 break-through treaded dangerously close to being a 'might have been.'

Losing consistently throughout the first four months of the new year, the sound of Safin breaking yet another racquet was the only noise the Russian was making on the court.

Commented Safin on his early season woes: "When you don't have confidence, you are losing, you know, first - one week you're losing the first round, second week, you are already afraid, you know, of playing. Sometimes you think twice when you hit the ball. You think, 'Ohhh, (is) it gonna be in or (is) it gonna be out?' And you don't know. You lose again, and you're losing confidence."

A coaching switch to Andrei Chesnokov proved the much needed remedy.

Said Safin: "Then, Andrei Chesnokov came, and he explain to me in very simple words with, you know, that let you know that you are a little bit like this (knocking on wood). "You have to do this, this, this, this." Few things that you need to do to be good player."

And the wins ensued - immediately: Barcelona, Mallorca, Tashkent, two Tennis Masters Series wins, at Toronto and Paris, his first title on Russian soil at St. Petersburg, and not least of all, becoming the first Russian to win the US Open, over no less than Pete Sampras.

Seven titles later, Safin headed to Lisboa seeded No. 1: "I think the confidence is the question. It's when you have a confidence, you can play great tennis."

...then finished at No. 2. Said Safin: "Unfortunately, this week, it wasn't the best in my career, but I'm satisfied (with) what I did during all the year. I'm satisfied with the game, with myself, with people, with everybody."

And that serve that eluded him at the Tennis Masters Cup? "I'm happy that I have to improve something; otherwise the game gets boring. I will improve it for next year."

But did he learn from his loss in Lisbon? "Yes, I'm learning. That's why I'm here. I have to learn."