Safin Smooth

by Matthew Cronin Saturday, September 9, 2000

Young Russian Marat Safin had a more difficult time getting a ride to the U.S. Open on Saturday than he did with tennis pop hero Todd Martin, out-muscling his graying elder 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (1) to become the first Russian to reach the U.S. Open final.

The good-natured 20-year-old with Uzi groundstrokes had few problems with Martin's non-stop net approaches, using his rapid fire two-handed backhand and rolling forehand to frequently pass the Michigan giant.

Martin, who became a fan favorite after his amazing late-night five-set win over Carlos Moya earlier this week, was simply not strong enough to keep up with Safin from the ground and didn't have enough stick on his approach shots.

For his part, Safin was brilliant when it counted, winning the second set with a gorgeous backhand pass and a service winner, and taking the match by playing a nearly perfect third set breaker, hitting two topspin lob winners and cracking a 133-mph ace on match point.

Before he whacked Martin, the extroverted Safin told of his frustration with the transportation desk, who didn't recognize the name of the world's sixth-ranked player.

"If the crowd is like this with me tomorrow, I have no chance to be somebody in the world," Safin laughed. "Maybe I'll wear a sign on my head that says, 'I'm Marat Safin.'"

As efficient as a match he played, when Safin came off court, he couldn't stop criticizing himself.

"I thought I was playing horrible," Safin said. "When I started, I was completely out of court. I couldn't find my concentration. I played without any pressure. I just had to concentrate. In the important moments, in the tiebreakers, I was 100 percent concentrated and that helped me."

After Safin saw that he crushed 58 winners, including 13 aces, he reconsidered his analysis.

"Actually I wasn't so bad. I made some great points. I was like a machine," he said. "To beat Todd Martin in two tiebreakers in the semis, you have to be a good player.I fight and that's it.

"Even when I thought I was playing bad I was there from beginning to end. I was trying to run everywhere, to make something new. I became a fighter.

" The 30-year-old Martin, who reached the final here last year, knew he was taken down by a better player.

"He played the big points and the little points better than me," Martin said. "I was fighting an uphill battle all the way. I came in every point I could and it was purely out of defense. I had to attack in order not to get smothered."

The fact is, the 6-foot-4, 180-pound Russian has bigger all-around weapons than most of his foes.

"The game's pretty simple for him," Martin said. "Today he was able to hit winners with shots that weren't going for winners. If he understood that that is pretty good every day of the week, he would have no problem with a lot of guys. But, what with Lleyton and Pete do, they will concern him and he'll have a greater propensity to over hit. He saw molasses across the street and wasn't too worried about it."

Martin is so high on young Safin's game that he thinks he will soon surpass his countryman, two-time Slam champ and former No. 1 Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

"Marat is so well equipped physically and technically that he just has to go out and try physically to get through some matches, where I think a lot of times Yevgeny has to try mentally and physically," said Martin. "Marat's got a better nerve and eventually will be better than Yevgeny."

During the first part of 2000, Safin spent much of his time destroying rackets and kicking balls into the stands. Now, he is displaying the steely nerves of chessmaster Gary Kasparov.

"It's impressive to me that somebody can ignore what the environment is, what the situation is," Martin said. "Other guys like Pete can tell when push is coming to shove. With Marat, he plays the first point of the match as loose as the last point of the match. He's able to ignore the weight of the point, or he just executes under pressure better than most guys."

While he is still not of legal drinking age in New York, the 20-year-old Safin said that he went from tennis toddler to high school graduate in a matter of months.

"I grew up," he said. "I started to understand that in order to become a good player, I have to be more professional, practice more, pay more attention in practice and to fight in matches, because I never fought. If I was playing good, I was playing unbelievable. When I was playing bad, I couldn't beat my mother. I started to practice with me head, not my strokes and everything came."

Although Safin is the first person from his country to reach the final in Flushing, he's still not satisfied.

"I still want to win the final. I want to feel this situation. Maybe I'm going to shout or get undressed on court," said Safin. "I don't know what I'm going to do if I win. It would be a great feeling to be champion at the U.S. Open."