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The Big Breakthrough

Last year Marat Safin smashed 48 rackets, but this year he's cracked the Top 5

By L. Jon Wertheim

Sports IllustratedHELP WANTED: Tempestuous Top 5 tennis player seeks full-time coach to accompany him on circuit. Experience preferred. Must be able to moonlight as sports psychologist. Flexible hours. Competitive $$.

If you're interested in the above position, fax your résumé and references to the ATP Tour, attention: Marat Safin. The 20-year-old Russian, currently the No. 4 player in the world, may be tearing up the tennis circuit, but since April he has been unable to retain a full-time coach, relying instead on an assortment of temps. "I'm starting to take it personally," Safin says of the unfilled position. "Maybe nobody loves me."

That's hardly the case -- and not just because Safin's walk-into-a-net-post-gorgeous girlfriend, Silvia, is usually on his arm when he's not on the court. As Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, now 29 and 30 respectively, enter their sunset years and gradually relinquish the baton, Safin is emerging as the leading young light in men's tennis. The centerpiece of the ATP Tour's cheeky NEW BALLS PLEASE ad campaign, which tacitly acknowledges that the sport is desperate for a transfusion, Safin is a star for the new millennium. He's tall, dark and handsome; he speaks three languages (Russian, Spanish and English in descending order of fluency); and he's disarmingly candid. Not surprisingly, he's fast becoming a fan favorite. Playing in the RCA Championships in Indianapolis last week, Safin was mobbed for autographs and photos at every turn. "I only sign for beautiful girls," he joked before obliging Hoosiers of all shapes and sizes.

Unlike another young, photogenic Russian tennis player featured in the pages of this magazine (Anna Kournikova, who a decade ago trained with Safin in Moscow), he has the results to justify the hype. The proprietor of a 133-mph serve and unmatched all-court skills, Safin has won three tournaments and more than $1.2 million in prize money this year. Though he has never advanced beyond the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam event, his stamina and heat-seeking baseline missiles place him on the shortlist of viable contenders to win the wide-open U.S. Open, which commences on Monday.

Regardless of how he fares at Flushing Meadows, the consensus on tour is that Safin is a future No. 1. "He's only 20, he's a big, strong guy, and he's got all the tools," Sampras said after Safin defeated him en route to winning last month's Toronto Masters Series event. "Being Number 1 and staying there is a whole new ball game, but he's got the potential to do that."

Adds fellow Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who had a brief tenancy in the rankings penthouse last year: "Marat is so talented, he will be as good as he wants to be."

Such benedictions would have been unthinkable earlier this year, when Safin played so poorly and with such little passion that he contemplated retirement. In the first round of the Australian Open, he lost to little-known Grant Stafford of South Africa after an effort so desultory that he was docked $2,000 for tanking. (That," says Safin of the fine, "was bulls---.") By late April, Safin had won only five matches in 12 tournaments. "Confidence is so funny," he says, pointing to his head. "It's not coming, not coming, not coming, and you say, 'I have no chance of beating anybody.' You just have to hope it returns. When it does, then you feel no one should beat you."

His personal perestroika, as it were, has come at a price. Before the Open Seat Godo 2000, in Barcelona in April, Safin parted ways with his longtime coach, Rafael Mensua. They had been together since Safin was 13 and Mensua took him from Moscow to Valencia, Spain, to train year-round. "We were -- we still are -- like a father and son," Safin says, "but it was heading to the point where I would say, 'Ah, f--- you,' and he would say, 'Ah f--- you,' and we might never talk again. Both of us needed a change."

With Mensua no longer in his box, Safin won the title in Barcelona, took the trophy in the Mallorca Open the next week and reached the finals of the Hamburg Masters Series event two weeks later, losing in a fifth-set tiebreaker to Gustavo Kuerten. Andrei Chesnokov, a former Top 10 player, worked with Safin in the spring before returning to his family in Moscow. Veteran coach Tony Pickard punched the clock during the grass-court season, including Wimbledon. Former pro Alexander Volkov has been with Safin during the summer hard-court stretch but will return home to Russia after the U.S. Open. Given Safin's recent success, does he need a full-time coach? "I'm not disciplined enough," he says. "I get bored too easily."

On the court, certainly, he often has a hard time sustaining his focus. Safin plays a high-risk style of tennis, sizing up the lines and wasting little time massaging a point. When he's on, he plays breathtakingly well, blending power with style and grace. In his first match in Indianapolis, against Israel's Harel Levy, Safin offered a tasting menu of his skills, smoking winners from the baseline, pounding aces and knocking off clever stab volleys.

Yet when his radar is off a bit, the results can be disastrous. Earlier this month in Cincinnati, for instance, he overhit relentlessly and lost in straight sets to France's Fabrice Santoro, a markedly inferior player. "Sometimes he's out of control," Volkov says of Safin. "In that match I thought he was going to have a heart attack."

When Safin is having a rough day, he often takes out his frustrations on his Head graphite rackets. He claims that last year he cracked 48 of his implements, and he is on a similar pace this year. Fortunately for Safin, the ATP Tour has relaxed its rules on racket abuse, on the grounds that it promotes "color" among the players. "That's the way it should be," Safin says. "I'm not like [the preternaturally poised] Stefan Edberg; I'm not a robot. I'm an individual who gets mad. If I break a racket, who does it really hurt?"

Safin reckons that he gets his, um, exuberant personality from his father, Misha, a director at a municipal tennis club in Moscow. (Marat's mother, Rausa Islanova, a tennis coach, trains his 14-year-old sister, Dinara, a highly regarded junior.) But if Safin's temper is of the hair-trigger variety, he is equally quick with a one-liner. After Safin outlasted Sampras in Toronto, a reporter congratulated him on having played an excellent tiebreaker in the third set. "For you, maybe it was good," Safin responded. "For me, I lost 10 years of my life."

Last week he was asked if he had designs on emulating Kournikova and emigrating soon to the U.S. "Oh, so you want me to kill myself?" responded Safin, who recently bought an apartment in Monte Carlo. "They don't even let me drink a beer in this country."

Then there's the matter of that coaching vacancy. "I can't understand it," Safin says with mock earnestness. "You get to spend 24 hours a day around me. That should be hard to resist, shouldn't it?"

Issue date: August 28, 2000


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