Rewards follow tough times for Safin

The current game's newest men's champion and winningest men's champion today are on their ways home. Marat Safin, following a day-after trophy photo shoot at New York City's Russian Tea Room, will fly back to Moscow to celebrate his U.S. Open victory. And Pete Sampras, a decade after he won his first of 13 Grand Slams, will head home to Los Angeles to prepare for his wedding.

These were the last two of 128 men who were still standing when Sunday's final match arrived. For on-lookers that fact may not have been surprising: Safin is one of the rising stars featured in the ATP Tour's 'New Balls, Please' campaign, and Sampras has been called the greatest champion of his time. But for the players personally, it's been a tumultuous year that has been capped with triumph after struggle.

Marat Safin, 20

The Moscow native has been surrounded by the game since his first day. Both parents are athletes and his mother, who played at Roland Garros, now coaches his sister Dinara. As a youngster Safin enjoyed playing ice hockey, but favored tennis. His parents secured him a sponsor and, at age 14, shipped him to Spain for specialized instruction that ultimately shaped his raw talent into the hearty, patient and strong play exhibited by clay-court stalwarts.

Safin -- who claims earning his first point in a Satellite (the minor-minor leagues of pro tennis) was a bigger victory at the time than the U.S. Open trophy was Sunday -- worked very hard to climb up the rankings. He made great progress in 1997, moving from No. 450 to No. 194. The following two years he broke the Top 50 and the Top 25. But 2000 has been his true breakthrough, and he hit No. 3 this week because of his New York performance.

Yet less than six months ago Safin was very discouraged.

Safin lost every match he played for the year's first five tour events, including the Australian Open that fined him for allegedly tanking a match. While he got to the semifinals in Copenhagen at the end of February, March started poorly with a second-round loss at Indian Wells.

'I think about quitting the tennis in Indian Wells,' said Safin, who found his form on the Spanish clay where he won back-to-back events at Barcelona and Mallorca. 'I start to play better, and before I was thinking to stay in the Top 20. With luck, I can finish in Top 20. Maybe I can go to Top 15.'

The summer shaped up well as he made four final showings en route to winning the U.S. Open.

'Now I'm thinking about No. 1 in the world. I have a big chance, so it's a big difference,' Safin said.

Safin notes two events that directly contributed to his career success.

Three years ago his sister gave him a present -- a gold ring -- as a present before a Challenger event in Holland.

'Actually, it's funny. When she just make me a present [of this ring], I start to win matches, I start to play great...I was like 400. She make me a present -- I finish the year in Top 200. I'm still with it. I'm already 6 in the world,' said Safin, with the ring, hanging on a gold necklace, just peeking out his Adidas shirt. 'It gives me luck.'

The other catalyst to his success wasn't about luck at all, it was all about attitude. Finally this summer, the words of his ex-coach and Andrei Chesnokov, his current coach-friend, made sense.

'Just fight' was the message. 'When you're playing bad, you have to fight -- I didn't fight,' Safin said. 'You know how many matches I lose 6-0 in the second set? I mean, it was a disaster. I was just making Christmas presents. I cannot do this. So I start to fight.' It's paid off.

But the killer instinct is reserved for the court. Safin's charm is revealed through the jokes and tipped-head, open-mouthed laughs that spike his typically monotone Russian conversation. It's a special time for him, turning from journeyman to a man to beat.

And, the man who just downed Pete Sampras in a method that stumped the No. 1, almost resembled a trusting but lost boy when standing on court in front of 100 jockeying photographers. 'Over here, Marat,' 'Kiss the trophy,' 'Turn to the left,' they instructed.

Now that he's had some practice posing with a heavy trophy, the next time he'll likely handle it in the expert fashion he handled Sampras just moments earlier.

by Liza Horan
New-York, Monday September 11, 2000