Safin says Rios most talented, Federer "next Sampras", really interesting article
Safin decides to get serious
January 18, 2004
Marat Safin may be this year's player to watch, reports Linda Pearce.
Marat Safin has just finished a thunderous practice session overseen by his latest coach, part-time Russian tour player Denis Golovanov.
The performance is imposing, an effortless service action pounding one last basket of balls. Safin may be the world's 77th-ranked player, but he also intends to return to No. 1 before the year is out.
Which may sound optimistic, but Safin has never been one for restraint. The past season, in which he won only 12 matches in 23 tournaments, was the most difficult of his career. Safin spent months able only to rest and hope, waiting for his damaged left wrist to heal. No doubt he also enhanced his reputation for party-boy behaviour during his time away, but more significant is his post-sabbatical vow to change his erratic, undisciplined tennis ways.
Indeed, one former coach, Mats Wilander, has said that "if Marat had the head of Jim Courier, he would be unbeatable".
So, are we seeing the new, calm, committed Marat at last?
"I'm trying, I'm trying, I'm really trying," said Safin, whose 2002 Australian Open finals loss to Thomas Johansson was most notable for his busty blonde "entourage" and carefree - almost careless - demeanour. "I had six months off, so I've been talking to people, and they give me good advice, so at least I can understand a little bit myself and I can understand a little bit what I need to do.
"It has to work. I have no other option. I have been out for basically almost a year, so I have a lot of time to think about my life, about my tennis life, and make some good decisions and that's why I decided to prepare myself quite seriously for this year, because it's time.
"I'm going to be 24, so time to do something big, and life is moving, so you have to hurry up. Otherwise, it's going to be too late."
Safin will never be a Courier, or Lleyton Hewitt clone, and has only recently been struck by the radical idea of trying, really hard, until a match is over. Yet he is not one for if-onlys, despite his performance against Pete Sampras in the 2000 US Open final prompting the towering 20-year-old to be hailed as the prototype of the next generation. Somehow, more than three years later, the rising 24-year-old is still waiting for major No. 2.
"It comes with time. It's coming at a certain age, but for some people that's very early, and for some people that's 23, as it happens to me," said Safin of his new-found resolve. "But I also don't regret anything I did in the past. I mean, maybe I had to change something, but it was OK.
"You have to go through the periods of time, the periods of life, the directions. You have to find everything and put it in order."
Still, the present world order is horribly unflattering among a peer group that includes Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Hewitt. While Federer, Roddick and Ferrero won singles majors last year, and Hewitt led his country to a Davis Cup, Safin tumbled from No. 3 to 77th.
Injury was the major factor. The Russian arrived here last January fresh from his country's Davis Cup win, only to withdraw before his Sydney quarter-final with a shoulder injury, and then tear ligaments in his left wrist during his first match at Melbourne Park.
"Basically I was in great shape, I came here, I got injured and then all the year was screwed up," he said.
Safin tried twice to return to the court, but it was soon clear that a long break was needed, and the semi-final defeat of Ferrero in Barcelona on April 26 was his most recent tour victory. Five demoralising first-round losses prompted one last withdrawal, from the Paris Masters, to prepare for 2004.
Safin spent a solid month training in Monte Carlo under fitness adviser Walt Landers and Golovanov, his sixth coach in three years. "He's the person that he can travel with me for 42 weeks a year, he can be for me 24 hours available and he knows me since I was 12," Safin said.
Safin believes he belongs in the company of Roddick, Federer, Ferrero et al. "I think there will be times that they will beat me, that I will beat them, so it's going to be a competition like it was before with Becker, Sampras, Agassi."
Who, then, is the next Pete? Safin himself? "No, it's Federer. Federer I think is Sampras. He has the potential. He's very talented and he has more or less the same game. he needs more improve(ment), but he plays as nice as Pete. He is very talented, definitely. Very good hands, very good serve.
"But I think for me the most talented of all times was (Marcelo) Rios. But unfortunately he doesn't want to continue his tennis career, because when it's too easy for you, then it's boring."
The same, perhaps, could be said of Safin. "For me, tennis is not so easy," he insisted. "But I've been working really hard, I've put in a lot of time and a lot of dedication, and I'm trying to make it easier."
Born: January 27, 1980, Moscow
Lives: Monte Carlo
Turned pro: 1997
Career: 242-142 win-loss record; 11 career singles titles.
Career prizemoney: $US8,640,150.
2003 in review: Limited to 14 tournaments by wrist injury, outside top 50 for first time since 1997.
Australian Open: Played five times, runner-up in 2002.
French Open: Five times, semi-finalist in 2002.
Wimbledon: Four times, quarter-finalist in 2001.
US Open: Five times, won in 2000.