Safin's Confidence, and Chances, Are Shaky for Open

AUG 26, 2001


The night was creeping into early morning inside a Manhattan club, where vodka shots were being passed out as freely as pamphlets, where one hearty toast by a Russian friend was followed by another.
The mood was made for dancing.

"I was too tired and too nervous to dance," Marat Safin said. "I didn't know what I just did."

Safin had just dismantled Pete Sampras to win the 2000 United States Open. With service returns that splashed down at Sampras's feet, with uncommon patience to fluster his legendary opponent, Safin broke out of obscurity inside Arthur Ashe Stadium last September to win his first major at age 20. Hours later, the all-night party began.

"I don't sleep that night," Safin said, paging back a fuzzy memory. "I had to celebrate what had just happened. No one could blame me. I may never win it again."

As an insecure defending champion, Safin will be fighting self-doubt when the United States Open begins tomorrow. Two weeks ago, as he sank his 6-foot-4-inch frame deep into the couch cushions inside a players lounge at the Tennis Masters Series of Cincinnati, he went from chiding himself to counseling his psyche out loud during an interview.

One moment, he was spiraling into a deep funk about a 2001 season that has been undermined by injuries and sabotaged by a crisis of confidence. Instead of gaining strength from the fact he dramatically turned his season around this time last year, Safin dropped his head.

"Magic? It only happens once," said Safin, who ranked third on the ATP's 52-week entry system but is No. 25 on the 2001 Tour points race because of his 24-21 record. "It doesn't happen twice. It can't change from bad to unbelievable. That's once in a lifetime."

But in a contradictory tone, Safin shrugged off his troubles to reveal an Up-With-People optimism. He was content with his personal happiness, showed faith in a turnaround and felt confident about the future of his game.

"I'm not anymore the rising star from Russia," Safin said. "I've already done good things. I've been dropping, but I still have my name. People still recognize me on the street, so this is not too bad.

"It's not pressure anymore. I'd like to win again. That's it. It will come. It has to come."

Tortured as he may be, Safin's cue for a revival could be the United States Open. But he is only one of many top players searching for inner peace in the season's last major. In one quarter of the draw, there are three former United States Open champions urgently seeking one last curtain call. There is Andre Agassi, who has fatherhood on the way, Patrick Rafter, who is mulling retirement, and Pete Sampras, who has an aura to reconstruct.

"The aura is still there, and I feel it," said Sampras, whose disappointing season has left him seeded No. 10 at the Open. "I've been through everything at the Open. That's where it all began for me. It's the place where I've won, where I've been injured, where I've been sick and where I've had great matches. I think with the history I've had there, it definitely gives me an edge."
The youth on Tour is brazen, though. Last year, Safin provided the introduction to a new group of players that has talent to challenge the aging superstars. With the alignment of the draw, there is an opening for new blood. To plow through the draw, players like the top-seeded Gustavo Kuerten or the 18th-seeded Andy Roddick may only need to hitch a ride on momentum.

"This year I'm 18 in the world going in," said Roddick, who lost his first match in his United States Open debut a year ago, back when he needed a wild card to enter. "Last year, I was just happy to be getting the chance to even participate. I definitely feel like I belong there a little bit more now.

"I'm going to have to get through the first round or two, and those are the toughest when everybody is there and everybody is hungry, and you can't take anybody for granted. And I'm the type of player where the more matches I get under my belt, the better I start playing. Hopefully, I'll be able to get my feet in the tournament."

In Safin's case, success comes down to a head game. A week ago, Safin took a step in a positive direction when he advanced to the semifinals of a warm-up tournament in Indianapolis.

"At least I can play tennis," Safin said after playing in a celebrity event in Manhattan on Friday. "At least I can win some matches."

Safin may have arrived at this state of unsteady confidence for several reasons, including a change to a new racket, a back injury and the selection of a new coach. For most of the year, Mats Wilander has guided him. In an effort to curb his self- destructive temperament, and glean some on-court savvy, Safin sought out Wilander. But some wonder if Wilander may be too passive in directing Safin.

But more than anything else, Safin's inability to mount an encore to last year has been most hindered by his health early in the season. Concerned with the penalties for missing the top-tier Masters Series events on Tour, Safin played through a back injury in the spring when some believed he should have rested.

"I think there were big tournaments, and I think at first I could play anyway," Safin said. "I tried, but it wasn't O.K. It was also my mistake."

The injury has long since healed, but Safin has struggled to recover his mental approach to tennis, leaving the question in the balance: What's wrong with Safin?

"People should understand that I'm human," Safin said. "There are bad days, bad months. Just because you have this great moment at the U.S. Open doesn't mean you're going to be playing great tennis for the rest of your life. You play very bad, a little bit bad and then you can come back. You know, the stock market, I think it's this way, too."

Safin's ups and downs are just as unpredictable. Long before this season, he teetered between dominance and doom. In one match, he would lose his cool, smacking his racket on the net like a flyswatter. In the next match, he could tunnel into a Yoga- like trance. On the day he met Sampras in the 2000 Open final, his mind was completely at ease.

"It was one of those days when you wake up in the morning and everything is perfect," Safin said. "Then, the way I played was perfect. I couldn't have played better.

"Last year, I had the belief. This year, I'm struggling for the solution. But I think being the defending champion, that will be good for me. I think I'm going to play good there because I have to. In a tournament you've won, you can't play bad. All the atmosphere, and the people supporting you, you can't play bad.

"I want to play well. But let's say I'm not a favorite. Right now, I can't think big. When you don't have confidence, you have to take it slow."

Source: The New York Times
Section: Sports