Safin Smokes Zabaleta

Safin Smokes Zabaleta

by Matthew Cronin
Wednesday, September 5, 2001

Firmly reestablishing himself as major contender for his second US Open crown, defending champion Marat Safin wasted Argentine Mariano Zabaleta 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 to gain the semifinals on Wednesday.

Tearing apart Zabaleta off the ground and from the service line, Safin crushed 33 winners to only 17 from his opponent. The 6-foot-4 Russian was also adept at the net, winning 25 of 39 of his forays. Safin, who hasn't won a title since last October, is again sporting the fierce, relentless game that brought him last year's title.

"I'm happy now that I can play great tennis at least," said the 21-year-old Safin. "I can run and enjoy the game. Before it was a little bit of a disaster. I couldn't do anything with the ball. I was struggling and trying to find my game, my confidence. Now it's good."

Zabaleta didn't bring enough heat consistently against Safin, who stood tall in the center of the court and scalded winners. Safin is a far cry from the player who was embarrassed by Fabrice Santoro at Roland Garros in June or was torched in the first round of Cincinnati by Guillermo Canas.

"I would have never though that in Montreal or Cincinatti that I would be in the semifinals here," said Safin. "I was playing so bad. I was just trying to put a ball inside the court. But it wasn't possible. Then I started to play better in Indianapolis. I beat guys like Sa, Robredo and Enqvist. Then I lost to Rafter who was playing well, 7-6 in the third set, with a match point. I started to feel and move better. I Iost some weight. It was working."

Last year, Safin exhausted himself after winning the Open in his attempt to gain the year-end No. 1 ranking. Although he briefly held the spot in November, Safin finished the year ranked No. 2. He played 100 singles matches and only had 10 days off in December. Even for a Russian strongman, it was too much tennis. By January, he was cooked.

"There was no chance, no way," said Safin, who incurred both back and knee injuries this year. "I was dead. I couldn't move anymore. Of course I got injured because I wasn't prepared and my muscles were too tired."

Safin will face either Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi in the final. Last year, the Russian drop kicked Sampras in the Open final. Agassi owns a 3-1 edge over Safin, including bullying him in the '000 Tennis Masters Cup. However, in their only meeting a Slam, Safin stunned Agassi in five sets in the first round of '98 Roland Garros. Safin knows that he'll have to play beautifully to upend either American.

"The other day the way they played was ridiculous," Safin said. "Pete played way too good against Rafter and Andre against Federer, it was a joke. He played too good. I don't want to look ridiculous on court against them, so I need an excuse in the beginning. But I'm not playing so bad so it will be and honor just to try to play my best game against them."

Safin credited his new coach, 1988 U.S. Open champ Mats Wilander, with helping to right his ship. Safin added that the days of him merely zoning and winning Slam titles are over.

"It's different now because you have to work, think, spend hours and hours on court running around with your coach," he said. "Now it's harder work. Last year it was talent, luck and confidence. Now I'm spending more time working on myself. Eventually, you have to do this."