Work in Sports
Safin, Venus leading tennis into 21st century
FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. (CNN/SI) -- Both are pushing the sport of tennis forward by mixing more pure power and all-over-the-court athleticism than many players ever have in the past.
And both have come a long way in a short time, turning around rough beginnings to 2000 by winning singles titles at the year's last major tournament, the U.S. Open.
Venus Williams and Marat Safin, both just 20, now have futures as promising as their strokes are punishing.
But it didn't seem that way in January.
Williams sat out nearly six months because of tendinitis in both wrists, and her father mused aloud about whether she'd retire. When Williams stepped back on the court, she lost two of her first four matches of the year.
Safin was fined at the Australian Open for not putting in enough effort during a defeat, one of five straight first-round exits to start the season. He even considered quitting. Now, no less an authority than Pete Sampras touts Safin as "the future of the game."
Williams is already on top, even if the rankings say otherwise.
Women's tennis has evolved since the 1970s, from the finesse of Chris Evert, to the athleticism of Martina Navratilova, to the forehand-based power of Steffi Graf, to the two-winged strength of Monica Seles.
Now there's Williams, legs and arms churning, her wrists taped like a boxer's, pounding the ball from all angles, racing to reach an opponent's hard-struck shots and returning them harder.
"I really have some wheels on myself," Williams said.
During Saturday night's final at Arthur Ashe Stadium, two girls held up side-by-side signs proclaiming: "Venus Rocks." Indeed she does.
"I've just gotten to the point where I go out and take it," Williams said, "not just hope that someone will give it to me by making mistakes."
That aggressiveness helped Williams beat Lindsay Davenport 6-4, 7-5 to add the U.S. Open title to her Wimbledon championship from July. It was her 26th straight victory.
It also extended a streak indicative of the state of the game: The last six Grand Slam tournaments have been won by players who rely -- not solely, but significantly -- on outslugging their opponents.
Beginning with Davenport's win at Wimbledon last year, the parade of power has included Serena Williams (U.S. Open), Davenport (Australian Open), Mary Pierce (French Open) and Venus Williams.
Add in Graf's farewell title at the 1999 French Open, and you have to go all the way back to January of last year, when Martina Hingis won in Australia, to find a full-fledged finesse champion.
And though the WTA Tour's ranking system has Hingis at No. 1, Davenport at No. 2, and Venus Williams at No. 3 (due to her long layoff), there's little doubt about who's the best today.
"Well, she's definitely the No. 1 player right now. She's played like it the last few months, hasn't lost a match since the French Open. That's too good," Davenport said after frittering away a 4-1 first-set lead under Williams' onslaught Saturday.
"You never quite know what to do, if you should move into the court or wait for a hard shot back. It's tough to put balls back against her."
The same can be said of the 6-foot-4 Safin, who whips serves at 135 mph, is a deft returner, can trade baseline blazes with anyone, and knows when to slip in a cradled drop shot or topspin lob.
His 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 dispatching of the 29-year-old Sampras was the most one-sided U.S. Open final defeat for a former champion in a quarter century.
"He serves harder than I did at 19. He's more powerful," said Sampras, who won the first of four U.S. Open titles a decade ago and brought a 13-2 career record in major finals into Sunday's match. "He doesn't have many holes. He moves well. He's going to win many majors."
Safin previewed his potential at the 1998 French Open, beating Andre Agassi and defending champion Gustavo Kuerten in successive matches. But a costly temper -- Safin leads the ATP Tour in smashed rackets -- and an admitted lack of will derailed him until fellow Russians and former pros Alexander Volkov and Andrei Chesnokov dispensed some plain advice.
"Just fight," said Safin, who's 19-2 in his last 21 matches. "When you're playing bad, you have to fight. I didn't fight."
Only twice has a younger man won the Open: John McEnroe in 1979 and Sampras in 1990. McEnroe went on to win seven Grand Slam titles; Sampras' 13 are a record.
Asked how he approached playing Sampras, tennis' most intimidating serve-and-volleyer, Safin replied, "I knew I have to risk sometimes. I have to hit returns to his legs and after I have to pass him.
"So, it's very simple."
Perhaps for him.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.