A Tsar in born

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 Rafael Mensua.

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, of course."
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 said.

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, though painfully."
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 lapses."

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 and applause)

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 of his."

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 club, Spartak.

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 over."

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 11/01/2000