Safin unsatisfied on way to first Grand Slam final

By HOWARD FENDRICH AP Sports Writer September 9, 2000

NEW YORK (AP) -- Marat Safin shrugged his shoulders and turned his palms to the sky as if to ask, ``Why?'' He muttered to himself. He slammed his racket to the ground once, and considered doing it again a half-dozen other times.

All this while winning.

Safin rarely looked satisfied with his job on court Saturday, even as he conjured the right mix of power and guile to pick apart Todd Martin's game en route to a berth in his first Grand Slam final at the U.S. Open.

``When I was on the court,'' Safin said of his 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (1) semifinal victory, ``I said, 'Come on, man, how can I play like this?' Then I saw the statistics, and it was 54 percent of the first serves (in), 13 aces. Actually, I start to think, 'Actually, I wasn't playing so bad.'

``On the court it was completely different. I was shouting at myself. I even broke one racket, because I couldn't believe I could play so badly.''

Safin, seeded sixth, advanced to face Pete Sampras, a 7-6 (7), 6-4, 7-6 (5) winner over Lleyton Hewitt in Saturday's second semifinal. The 20-year-old Safin is the first Russian to reach the U.S. Open championship match.

Sampras and Safin have split two previous meetings.

``I don't want to think about this,'' Safin said after learning he'd play his first major tournament final against an American who has won a record 13 Grand Slam events. ``Everybody is going to be against me.''

Safin -- whose English, his third language, is broken but works -- beat Martin with a variety of tactics.

There were devastatingly direct first serves of up to 133 mph, twisting second serves dialed down to 83 mph, groundstroke winners from all angles, and at least six topspin lobs launched over an outstretched 6-foot-6 Martin.

``He played the big points better than me and he played the little points better than me,'' said Martin, 30, a finalist here a year ago.

``I was fighting an uphill battle the whole way.''

Safin seemed to be doing the same thing at times -- against himself.

He lost his temper at just one juncture, though -- when he was in the process of throwing away a 4-2 lead in the second set to let Martin back into the match. Serving in the eighth game of that set, Safin handed Martin the break with four unforced errors.

The last of those errors, a backhand that floated 5 feet long, was too much for Safin, who yelled, looked down, and spiked his racket on the baseline. Later, he proudly noted it was only his second broken racket of the tournament; last season he mangled 48 rackets and, so far this year, he estimates he's broken 36 or 37.

That fiery attitude, Safin insists, is a secret of his success.

``I fight. I fight,'' he said, flashing a genial smile that he rarely lets out on court. ``I never used to fight. I didn't know what it was. If I'm playing good, I was playing unbelievable tennis. When I was playing bad, I couldn't win ... I couldn't beat my mother.''

Actually, Safin's mother, Rausa Islanova, is a pretty good player and coach who taught him the game and also coached U.S. Open women's semifinalist Elena Dementieva. Safin's father, Misha, is the director of a small tennis club in Moscow. When Safin was 13, they sent him off for year-round coaching in Spain, and he lived there until recently moving Monte Carlo.

``I was tired of fighting with my mother, with my parents,'' Safin said. ``So they decide to send me to Spain. But for this, I thank very much my mother that she put me in the right way to play tennis. Otherwise, I could be, I don't know, but definitely not great sportsman.''

Asked how his mother felt about him throwing rackets, Safin smiled and said she told him:

``Well done, kid, Do it again.''

Safin made some noise on the clay courts of the French Open two years ago, eliminating Andre Agassi and defending champion Gustavo Kuerten on the way to the fourth round. Yet, Safin still remains relatively anonymous except for tennis aficionados.

He complained good-naturedly Saturday about his adventures with the players' transportation desk at the National Tennis Center:

``Please, can I have a car to come to the stadium?'

' ``What's your name?''


``Can you spell it, please?''

If Marat Safin wins a U.S. Open title, with or without mini-tantrums, maybe everyone will know who he is.