Youth over age as Safin reaches US Open final

NEW YORK (AP) -- Slowly, methodically, Marat Safin broke down Todd Martin's game, taking it apart one piece at a time. And when he was finished Saturday, the 20-year-old Russian was in the championship match of the U.S. Open.

Mixing his tactics magnificently, Safin displayed huge serves and the savvy to throw in a changeup every so often. There was a lob shot here, a drop shot there.

It all added up to a 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (1) victory in the semifinal and his first chance at a Grand Slam title on Sunday.

``It's nice to be in the final,'' Safin said. ``But something is missing. I want to win.''

Safin, seeded No. 6, will meet either No. 4 Pete Sampras, seeking to add to his record 13 major championships, or 19-year-old Lleyton Hewitt, seeded No. 9, who met in Saturday's other semifinal.

Safin had Martin, 10 years older, gasping for air on a hot, humid afternoon at the National Tennis Center.

``He played the big points better than me and he played the little points better than me,'' Martin said.

``I was fighting an uphill battle all the way. I was tired. But, gee, if I was at full speed the score could have been the same.''

President Bill Clinton arrived after the match, too late to see Safin's display of shotmaking that left Martin with little chance.
The youngster won the first set easily. When Martin rallied in the second, winning three straight games to get to 5-4, Safin never blinked. He shrugged off set point, pushed it to a tiebreaker and won it 7-4. Martin, the Open's marathon man, shed his baseball cap for the third set but it didn't help. His energy just ran out, his task complicated by Safin's lobs, drops and passes.

``I've been here for three weeks,'' Martin said.

``It's like renting a car. I'm going back to the airport empty.''

A finalist at the Open a year ago, Martin had flourished in long matches, including a five-set, 4-hour, 17-minute victory over Carlos Moya in the round of 16. Then there was a four-setter against Thomas Johansson in the quarterfinals.
Back on center court two days later, Martin didn't have a lot left in his tank against Safin, who is 6-foot-4 and a mirror image of the 6-6, American baseliner.
Safin was simply younger, faster and stronger. He boomed serves of up to 133 mph but also showed touch.

In the first set, Safin tossed in a gorgeous drop shot to get to set point. It was a statement shot, a reminder that even though he's young, his game is mature, capable of dealing with every situation.

Safin could not escape his reputation for having a short fuse, though. When he was broken in the second set, he flung his racket in anger. Last year, he broke 48 of them but he had not tossed one at the Open since his first-round victory over Thierry Guardiola.

Safin recovered the racket, used it to win the next point and then decided it was in no shape to go on and switched to a new one. It was just as effective as the original.

In the third set, with Martin's shirt and shorts soaked in sweat, Safin kept him cornered. In one game, he sent a lob over Martin's head that kissed the back line and then found the sideline as he dashed for a return.

It added up to another break that Martin couldn't afford. In the third set, Safin sent a shot whistling over the net, forcing Martin to duck. It was the appropriate reaction against a player who had more firepower and knew how to use it. To his credit, Martin was tenacious.

Serving to stay in the match, he won a crucial third-set game, forcing Safin to stay on the court for an extra few games.
The set went to a tiebreaker that Safin won 7-1, and he ended it aptly with his 13th ace and his fastest serve of the day -- 133 mph.

``I was tight. I was very nervous,'' Safin said.

``I saw 133. That was enough.''