New Guard: Safin Shocks Sampras

by Matthew Cronin Sunday ,
September 10, 2000

In one of the biggest upsets in tennis history, 20-year-old Russian Marat Safin destroyed the legendary Pete Sampras 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 to win his first U.S. Open title on Sunday in what could signal a changing of the guard in the sport.

"The way he's playing, he's the future of the game," said Sampras, who was attempting to win his fifth title in Flushing Meadows. "He's a nice guy and will represent the sport very well."

However, the good-natured Safin brought a mean streak on court, toying with Sampras on his service games, returning the six-time Wimbledon champion's serve like it was a beach ball and passing him at will.

After coming back from near death against Richard Krajicek in the quarters and taking apart Lleyton Hewitt in the semis, Sampras was heavily favored to win his 14th Slam title, but the 29-year-old was simply overpowered by a younger, stronger and more determined foe. Experience didn't matter.

"I thought about quitting in March," said the No. 6-seeded, Safin who had a horrific start to the year and on Sunday became the youngest Grand Slam champ since Sampras in 1990. "Now I won the U.S. Open. Now I'm thinking about being No. 1. I have a big chance and that's a great difference."

Sampras felt helpless and was reminded of '90, when as a 19-year-old he devastated Andre Agassi in the Open final. "I was trying everything.

I was trying to chip-charge stay back a bit," said Sampras. "Whatever I tried, he had the answers. I give him all the credit because he returned my serve and passed me just as well as anyone. I wasn't on top of game, but he had a lot to do with it. He was serving huge and I really never made an impression on his service games.

"He hit a couple good passes to break me in the first and kind of steam rolled me from there. With his game, as big as he hits the ball, when he's on, he's very tough to beat. He hardly missed. It hasn't happened to me much that I was carved up like that."

Safin completely controlled the match, popping in 130-mph serves consistently, whacking his precision backhand both crosscourt and down-the-line and gaining control of his sometimes errant forehand. And he showed no nerves.

"I didn't even think it was the final," Safin said. "I was just trying to beat Pete and I knew what I had to do. I'm better than him from the baseline and he has to accept that. But in other parts of the game, he's better than me. Everybody knows how to beat Pete, but nobody can beat him. But with confidence, you can do it."

Safin showed off a deft drop shot, competent volley, quick-revolving topspin lob and terrific speed for a 6-foot-4, 180 -pounder. He was rarely threatened by Sampras' serve-and-volley attack (Sampras won only 52 percent of his net forays), leaving all 23,115 fans in attendance with their mouths wide open.

"That was the best I have returned," Safin said. "I knew I had to take risk, return at his feet and pass him. It's that's simple."

During the fortnight, Safin has stressed how much his new willingness to fight until the last ball is tossed has changed his life. Sampras is in awe of his opponent's diverse game.

"He's more powerful than I was at 19," Sampras said.

"He's more developed. He serves harder. He doesn't have many holes and moves well for a big guy. He's going to be a threat here, at Roland Garros and at Australia. Grass might be a struggle but he's going to win many majors."

On match point in the only game where Safin showed a bit of nerves, Sampras closed hard and Safin stepped on him.

"That was icing on the cake," Sampras said.

Safin added," I was so nervous I cannot explain what I felt," he said. "It's now or never, never going to be."

After getting by Sebastian Grosjean in a fifth-set breaker in the fourth round, Safin confirmed his theory that if he stated his intention to win the event, it would solidly his confidence.

"I was right," said Safin. "I had to think positive. Sometimes it does work but at least you have it in your head that you want to win."

Sampras refuses to concede that he and Andre Agassi are done be the game's top dogs.

"I don't want to say it's a changing of the guard," Sampras said. "Obviously, it's a huge win for him. But I'll be back. Beating me the way he did, he's going to have an aura about him the next year and beyond. But things will be different, once you win that Slam, the pressure is inflated a little. He's going to be marked man next year. Guys are going to be wanting to beat him even more now. But he'll handle it fine because his game is so good."

Safin said he has the necessary make-up to be No. 1.

"It's a level I want," he said. "If I have the opportunity, I'll do it. If you want it, you can be there."