Work in Sports
Russian wins first Grand Slam title
NEW YORK (CNN/SI) -- Marat Safin, a 20-year-old giant with a grown-up game, reduced Pete Sampras into a weekend hacker.
In as thorough a thrashing as anyone has ever given the all-time Grand Slam champion, Safin became the first Russian to win the U.S. Open with a 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 victory Sunday, establishing himself the player of the future in men's tennis.
Boyish, emotional and blessed with talents beyond his natural power, Safin celebrated his victory by getting down on his knees and kissing the court in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
The youngest champion since Sampras won the first of his four U.S. Open titles a decade ago, Safin won his first major title and only the fifth tournament of his brief career in the most lopsided victory over a former champion in 25 years.
"He reminded me of myself when I was 19 and came here and won for the first time," said the 29-year-old Sampras. "The way he's playing he's the future of the game. I didn't feel old. I felt I was standing next to a big dude.
"It's a bit of a humbling feeling to have someone play that well for that long. He serves harder than I did at 19. He's more powerful. He doesn't have many holes. He moves well. He's going to win many majors."
Safin, serving at up to 136 mph and whacking a dozen aces to push his tournament total to 115, never faced so much as a single break point until the last game when Sampras finally got two after Safin opened with a double fault, only his second of the match.
"I felt no pressure until last game," Safin said. "He becomes huge, the racket was huge, everything was huge."
Safin wiped away those break points quickly, and closed the 1-hour, 38-minute match with a backhand pass that zipped by Sampras as so many others had before.
Sampras, holder of 13 Grand Slam titles, had lost only twice before in a major final -- against Stefan Edberg in the 1992 U.S. Open and Andre Agassi in the 1995 Australian Open.
No one had lost in the final so badly since Edberg beat Jim Courier in 1991. And no former champion had gone down so hard since Jimmy Connors lost to Manuel Orantes in 1975.
Asked how he returned Sampras' serve so well, Safin replied, "You think I know?"
Sampras unleashed a 131-mph ace to start the match, a message intended to intimidate the Russian in his first major final. But Safin resolutely stood his ground time after time, waiting for his chances.
At 3-3 in the first set, on a mild afternoon with a slight breeze, Safin created his first break point at 15-40 with a sizzling forehand pass into the corner that Sampras watched like a spectator. Two points later, Safin rocketed back a return winner that seemed faster than Sampras 124-mph serve. Sampras barely caught a glimpse of the ball going past him.
That was all Safin needed as he cruised on his serve, yielding only nine points in five service games and going to deuce only once.
The second set turned at the same 3-3 juncture. After Sampras served the first of his double faults, Safin pounced again, setting up the first break point of the match with a spectacular running backhand pass, and taking the game with a solid return Sampras slugged long.
Once more, Safin had no trouble holding serve to close the set, and his victory assumed an air of inevitability when Safin took a 3-0 lead in the third set. "I really didn't have my game today," Sampras said. "He played so well, served big. He was not intimidated. He's a champion. He's young. He's going to get better and better.
"I tried to mix my serve. It didn't work. I tried to chip and charge. It didn't work. Everything I tried didn't seem to work. All credit to him."
Safin earned $800,000, giving him more than $3 million in his brief career, and he moved into the No. 3 spot in the yearlong rankings. Sampras will be No. 1 in the new rankings Monday, and Gustavo Kuerten will be No. 2.
Safin is only the second Russian to capture a Grand Slam title. Yevgeny Kafelnikov won the 1996 French and 1999 Australian Opens.
Safin's arrival as a Grand Slam champion could be seen coming the past two years. Everyone in tennis knew he had enormous talents -- the brutal two-fisted backhand, the crushing forehand, the huge serves, the feathery touch. All this plus a 6-foot-4 body with long, strong legs that allowed him to cover the court.
Of Safin's many brilliant shots against Sampras, none stood out more than a sprint he made diagonally across the court from the baseline to the net to chase down a half-volley drop shot by Sampras. Safin reached it backhanded with his long arms just before the ball touched the ground, and he flicked it at a devastatingly sharp angle over the net and out of Sampras' reach.
But just as everyone had raved about Safin's blossoming talents, there was the recognition that his temper often got the best of him. He became infamous for breaking rackets -- 48 last year, about 36 this year, including two at the Open. He also had a tendency to get down on himself, and was fined for tanking a match at the Australian Open this year.
Safin spoke to his friend Alexander Volkov after a series of first-round losses this year and a 5-11 record through the Monte Carlo in April. Told 'you must take this more seriously,' Safin has been on fire since. He beat Sampras in Montreal in August on the way to winning the Canadian Open.
This time, Safin made only 12 unforced errors to Sampras' 25, and struck 37 winners to Sampras' 32.
"I thought about quitting tennis in Indian Wells," Safin said. "Now I won the U.S. Open. Before, I was thinking about staying in Top 20 maybe go to Top 15. Now I think about No. 1. I have a big chance."
Safin's path to the final was littered with two five-set matches and two four-setters.
"I was almost on the plane against [Sebastien] Grosjean," Safin said. "It was 7-6 in the fifth set. I felt like I don't know how to play tennis anymore."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.