In September 10, 2000, in a devastating display of poise and
power, 20-year- old Marat Safin unseated Pete Sampras to become
the first Russian ever to win the US Open and the youngest
Grand Slam winner since Sampras took his first Grand Slam
title (of 13 to date) at the US Open in 1990. Indeed, the
victory put Safin front and center of a new generation of
tennis stars; in Russia he was proclaimed "The New Tsar
of Russian Tennis."
When Safin's last passing shot breezed by Sampras, the 6'4"
Russian raised his hand aloft in triumph, smiled a radiant
smile and looked up to the sky, as if seeking confirmation
from heaven that his victory was not a dream. He kneeled down
on the hard green court, kissed the ground, then clambered
up into the stands to embrace the handful of supporters who
had come to cheer him on. Safin had been singularly calm and
calculating in his straight- set (6:4, 6:3, 6:3) obliteration
of Sampras. He made very few forced errors and was in complete
command of the court, repeatedly driving passing shots down
the line and never letting Sampras get a toe-hold at the net.
In short, Safin out Sampras-ed Sampras. No former champion
had lost so badly and so quickly at the US Open since Jimmy
Connor was routed by Manual Orantes (6:4, 6:3, 6:3) in 1975.
Marat Safin is a new breed of Russian tennis player. Tall,
handsome, affable and easy-going, he is a sports marketer's
dream. He doesn't grouse like Yevgeny Kafelnikov (who the
press has dubbed "Mr. Lemon" for his cool demeanor),
or has Safin been smitten with stardom like Anna Kurnikova
(who has yet to win a single tournament in her career).
Safin is also a new type of Russian sportsman. His experience
is a dean break from the "big brother" sports machine
of the Soviet era (whereas Kafelnikov enjoyed all the perks
of this era, yet got to "privatize" himself when
the new reality manifested itself). This is not to say Safin
struggled through dire straits. His mother, Rauza Islanova,
a former Soviet tennis player, was a coach at Moscow's Spartak
in Sokolniki (training, among others, Russia's new female
tennis prodigy, Yelena Dementieva), which meant court time
was always easy to come by.
But Rauza taught her son to work hard. She trained Marat herself
until he was 13, then she and her husband, Mikhail (also a
sportsman, he was a Moscow track and field champion), found
a sponsor and sent Marat for training to Spain, under coach
Such a long separation from one's family at such an early
age can surely not have been easy. Mikhail said he believes
that Marat realized his potential and forged his character
when he was forced to live on his own. But the reason for
training abroad was clear: his mother's coaching was no longer
sufficient and, in the early 1990s, Russia's sports machine
was in a shambles; the only way to get world- class training
was to go abroad. As Marat said in 1999, "if I had not
left Russia for abroad I would probably have stopped playing
tennis by now"-a reality many promising Russian juniors
without sponsors had to face.
Cut loose in Spain, Marat of course fell victim to adolescent
impulses. He came to love night clubs and loves to party.
"When they organize parties at tournaments, Marat goes,"
his father said. "In Spain, nightlife for adolescents
is a given. And since Marat grew up in Spain, he got used
to it. He relishes club life-but not to the detriment of tennis,
Rauza also recalled how Marat bought himself a heavy gold
chain, boasting that it was heavier than Andrei Medvedev's
(the Ukrainian tennis player). Rauza cringed. "Marat,"
she said, "I also like gold, but not in such quantities."
"It was such a childish purchase" Mikhail said.
Then, when he was 15, he pierced his ear. "Now they are
even piercing navels, but back then it was a shock. We were
so upset," Mikhail recalled.
But the earring shortly disappeared. Marat was growing up
quickly. By 1997, he had turned pro and, over the course of
the year had moved from number 450 in the world to 194. By
1998 he was the ATP's "Player to Watch." A strong
performance in the Davis Cup against US veteran Jim Courier
put Safin on everyone's radar screen. Then Safin stole the
show at Rolland-Garros 1998, where he defeated Andre Agassi
and the then defending champion Gustavo Kuerten.
In the fall of 1999, Marat was a full-- fledged member of
the Russian National Davis Cup Team and was dubbed "Savior
of Russia" for helping his team win the decisive fifth
point against Slovakia. At the end of 1999, he was ranked
25th in the world.
But the beginning of 2000 was disastrous for the young Russian.
He was ousted in the first round in five consecutive tournaments.
At the year's first Grand Slam event, the Australian Open,
Safin was fined $2000 for not giving his best effort in an
opening round match in which he lost in straight sets. It
all made him question his career choice: "Last March,
in Indianapolis, I decided that if I don't finish the year
in the top 100, I will quit tennis," Safin recalled after
his US Open victory.
Thankfully, Safin's tailspin was halted. He prevailed upon
his friend and fellow tennis star, Andrei Chesnokov, to coach
him. Chesnokov helped Safin get his spirit back in the game
and his anger out (Safin is notorious for smashing racquets
on court-48 in 1999 and 36 in 2000). Chesnokov also taught
Marat to stop trying to hit every ball as if it were his last,
to focus on accuracy and hitting the ball long. The effect
was almost immediate. Safin pulled out a string of victories
in Barcelona, Mallorca and Hamburg (runner-up). By the end
of May he had climbed to number 14 in the world. "I began
to think with my head and everything went normal," Safin
Russian Davis Cup Captain Shamil Tarpischev said, "Marat
found himself in a psychological pit. It has happened to many.
It's one thing when you are a nobody; you have nothing to
lose. It's a different thing when you already have something.
You know: fame, money, attention from the girls. To an inexperienced
guy, it seems that once you have achieved it, you will never
lose it. In order to learn how to defend one's achievements,
one must have character, time and experienced people who can
suggest what to do and how. Safin overcame the crisis quickly,
Marat split later this year with Chesnokov, due to some personal
differences. Another friend and coach, Alexander Volkov, stepped
in to help Safin prepare for hard surface tournaments. He
then took the Masters tourney in Toronto, where he beat Sampras
for the first time, in the quarterfinals. Now sixth in the
world, Safin was ready to vie for his first Grand Slam tournament.
But then, winning a Grand Slam tourney requires consistent
play for two weeks. There is no room for on-court tantrums.
While Safin is no McEnroe, engaging in verbal abuse of umpires,
line judges and fellow opponents, he is very hard on himself.
As Reuters observer Bill Berkot wrote, "The immensely
talented 20-year-old with thunderous strokes has been singled
out as one of the likely leaders of the next generation-poised
to take over the game when Sampras and Agassi decide to call
it quits. But he has often been his own worst enemy, prone
to bursts of uncontrolled anger and prolonged concentration
Luckily, in New York, Safin was in control of his game. And
when he is in control, he can be a devastating force. "I
grew up .." Safin said. "I started to practice with
the head, not with the strokes, and everything came."
After his US Open victory, Safin hit the US talk show circuit,
including Charlie Rose and Late Night with David Letterman.
Showing wit and charm, he bantered with Letterman and gave
as good as he got:
Marat: ...the problem is that you have to pay after you break
the racquet. (Laughter) You have to pay a fine.
Dave: Oh, they fine you for that?
Marat: No, no, they say `thank you, you are doing well: (Cheers
Safin's quick wit has long earned him the love of the Russian
press. Not surprisingly, when, on the heels of his victory
in New York, Safin won the President's Cup in Tashkent, Russian
observers, who have had a love-hate relationship with Russia's
tennis leader Yevgeny Kafelnikov, rushed to announce the advent
of a new tsar on the throne of Russian tennis. And no matter
how hard the doyen of tennis journalism, Oleg Spassky, tried
to warn the writers not "to rush in handing out places
in the Tennischart of Ranks" the temptation was too great.
But then, Kafelnikov should be given his due. Shortly after
Kafelnikov won the gold in Sydney (Safin had surprisingly
lost in the first round) he said he had "no envy whatsoever
towards Marat ... We are witnessing a process which had to
happen: young players are taking up the leading roles they
must take. Yes, maybe I lent a helping hand in shaping him
up as a sportsman when he was 18-19 years old, when we were
playing our first Davis Cup tournament. Quite naturally, I
was giving him advice as the team leader, as an old comrade
Moreover, Kafelnikov now feels relieved that he has a strong
teammate on the Davis Cup national team, who can help him
win the Davis Cup for Russia. "I hope next year we will
carry out this plan, because we have a really good team now,"
Kafelnikov said. "Everything will depend on the specific
sporting form we reach by the time we play ... I think if
[Marat and I] play according to our capacities, no ot\her
team can beat us."
There is indeed a strong spirit of camaraderie established
between the two Russian tennis stars-the first two Russians
to ever make it to the top ten at the same time. And yet,
despite this camaraderie, nothing in Safin reminds one of
the first tsar of Russian tennis-- Kafelnikov. Unlike Kafelnikov,
who stayed in a hotel in Sydney, Safin lodged in the Olympic
Village. "Zhenya is a family man and prefers solitude,"
Safin said. "And I like the tusovka [get together]. We
are people of different ages and interests. I have a different
lifestyle. For instance, I like going to discos."
On the night of his US Open victory, Safin was spotted at
the posh NY restaurant, the Russian Tea Room. "Sleep?!,"
Marat replied to an Izvestia correspondent in New York. "Give
me a break! What sleep?! We are cutting loose!"
Safin's game matches his character. He likes to fight an open
battle, fearlessly hitting the ball, not engaging in cool,
calculating, chess-like thinking games. As Kafelnikov commented,
this may be why it is easier for Safin to beat Sampras than
the diminutive Frenchman Fabrice Santoro. Santoro specializes
in drop shots and slices, anticipating Safin's every move;
he now has a five match winning streak against Safin, which
included Safin's first round defeat at Sydney.
The Olympic loss was particularly hard on Safin. "I couldn't
help my country and I'm angry because I can't fight for the
gold medal," he said at the time. Such sentiments resonated
deeply back in Russia. Despite the fact that Safin spends
most of his time abroad and has a Spanish girlfriend, he has
a deep and abiding love for Russia and particularly for his
hometown of Moscow. He said he loves to stroll Moscow with
friends late at night or go to cheer on his favorite soccer
But foreign tennis fans and observers also seem taken by Safin.
After the US Open, John McEnroe said that "with such
charm, such a nonchalant smile, this guy is twice as dangerous
... shortly he will eclipse Agassi if he continues this way
... Never before has a Russian tennis player been so interesting
as a personality. And this is the most intriguing part ...
Tennis has someone special and I hope it doesn't waste him."
Indeed, stardom can waste a man. But so far Safin seems to
be handling the spotlight well. Through many press conferences,
Safin has never snubbed a colleague or refused an autograph.
He is the same man in the top 10 as he was when he was just
in the top 200.
Yevgeny Fedyakov, one of Russia's leading tennis observers
from Sport-- Express concurred. "In June 1998, shortly
after his first sensational debut at the French Open, I remember
how hard it was for him to cope with the sudden avalanche
of fame ... Fame and attention weighed on him. Two years have
passed. Safin already knows what he is worth. But he is still
sincere-both on court and off. And this sincerity wins me
Fedyakov said he has not met a single person who would say
he does not like Safin. "And what's not to like? This
20-- year-old guy earns his money through hard-and what is
rare in our time-- honest work. He donated a few tens of thousands
of dollars to the families of the sailors of the Kursk submarine.
This was not because someone prompted him. It was simply because
he was stunned by the tragedy.... I think people like Safin
have the right to be the 2000 Generation. What Russia will
become in the 21st century depends on this generation."
Copyright Russian Information Services Nov/Dec 2000
Source: Russian Life