Agassi the big test for Safin
By Mats Wilander
January 29, 2004
Marat Safin burst on the tennis scene and blew Pete Sampras away in the final of the US Open in 2000 to win his first major. That was the only time Sampras was blown away in a big final, and Safin blew him away at his own game.
As a 20-year-old, that was a great win for Safin and obviously it did him some good, but it also did some bad for him. Suddenly, he had perfection to compare himself with, and that's an impossible situation for anyone.
I was his coach in 2001, but if I'd been his coach back then, I would have said: "That was a great performance, but you know what? That's not really allowed. You're not allowed to take that many chances and play that well."
He was never going to play a match like that again, and yet he could be extremely critical of himself because he felt he should be able to play like that all the time.
I would say nobody has a better all-round game than Safin. Roger Federer is obviously very close, but these are the two most natural players of the past 10 years.
It was thanks to his talent that Safin won the US Open title over Sampras. He was one of the best juniors in the world because of his talent, and he remains one of the best because of his talent.
Of course, he has more than just talent. He is very accomplished tactically and has excellent court smarts.
But despite being given this talent, his win at Flushing Meadows more than three years ago remains his only major title.
Now that must be really frustrating. To know that you have that talent, but that mentally you're not really prepared to put in the grind because nine out of 10 times you don't have to, that's way more frustrating than having the mental game but not the talent to match it.
Safin gets frustrated and the frustration comes from being too talented.
Often, Safin shows that frustration on the court by smashing his racquet or getting down on himself for long periods. He's also known for making entertaining comments at news conferences. He's seen as being a little mad.
Well, he's mad, but I think you'd find very few people that are not mad at this level of the game. They're just mad on the inside rather than on the outside. He's mad on the outside.
On the inside, Marat's not that crazy. He's a very mellow guy, he's funny, he's got a great sense of humour.
I have a lot respect for Marat, but that's not because of his tennis. It's because of his ways. The way that he is around the tennis court, the way that he says hello to all the players, the way that other players think he's conducted his life. There's an aura around him, too - a vibe that you get, that all the players get from him, that is very positive. In the locker room, he's a warm guy and people warm to him.
Marat's very honest, but I think maybe he needs to become a little more honest with himself on the court.
It's simply not realistic for him to expect to hit winners all over the place all the time. That win over Sampras gave him a lot of respect among the players, but he lost some of it because guys realised that if you hung with him for a while, maybe he'd beat himself.
I've seen matches where he did that, but I've also seen matches where he played scrappy and was able to come through.
He has shown that mental strength against the poorer players, but the next step for him is to have that attitude against the better guys.
That's why I think it's a pretty good test for him tonight against Andre Agassi, even though I think Agassi is pretty pleased to be playing Safin and not Roddick because of his mental weaknesses. Tonight will be a very good measure of where Safin's game is heading mentally.
He's probably more surprised than anybody about where he is now, but at the same time he's proven to himself that he doesn't have to be 100 per cent physically. He can guts it out.
But until Marat proves himself a few more times, and wins some of these long matches against the better players, where it's a matter of who's the strongest mentally, I think the likes of Agassi will always believe they can beat him.
Nice article from Mats to fuel the talent debate going on between Safin and Federer