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Safin Sets Sights On Top 10 Return
Marat Safin insists he is finally healthy and believes that will prove to be a painful prospect for opponents. The former No. 1, who was sidelined for half the season with a wrist injury that plunged him into a period of self-doubt, has an optimistic outlook on the 2004 season. Safin has set his sights on returning to the top 10 and contending for another Grand Slam championship next year.
"I'm back and I'm healthy," Safin told Sky Sports. "My goal for next year is to try to win a Grand Slam and if it is possible to get back into the top 10 and play the Masters. It will take time, I have to take it slow and stay away from injuries, then I will have a good chance."
A left wrist injury Safin sustained at the Australian Open in January limited him to just 23 matches this season and prevented him from hitting his two-handed backhand without pain.
Currently ranked 78th, Safin sat out three months of the season with torn ligaments in his wrist. He returned to tournament tennis in Los Angeles at the end of July only to aggravate the injury and retire from him his opening-round match against Prakash Amritraj, trailing 3-5. Safin was sidelined for another two months and made another comeback in his hometown of Moscow, falling to Wayne Black 4-6, 7-6(5), 4-6 in September.
In the aftermath of his 4-6, 7-5, 6-4 opening-round Madrid Masters loss to Jonas Bjorkman last month, Safin said the inactivity had left him feeling lost on the court.
"I've been out for a long time, for six months," Safin said. "So is difficult to come back and start winning matches because you lose everything. You lose the movement on the court, you lose the eye, you lose the confidence, you lose everything. Then when you come back, you start to picking up all these small things step by step. So for me at least I make three sets today, and I was very close to win the match. Unfortunately, because of my confidence, I'm a little bit too slow on the court, I don't see the ball, so that's why I problems, you know, like playing from the baseline, going to the net. I don't see the point. I cannot read the other player."
The 2000 U.S. Open champion believes a California doctor has remedied his wrist injury after placing his left arm in a cast. The 23-year-old Safin is set to start the season at the Hopman Cup, scheduled for January 3rd-10th in Perth, Australia. The eight-team exhibition event is a popular warm up for the Australian Open.
The Hopman Cup features one of its finest fields in the event's 16-year history with several current or former top-ranked players participating. In addition to defending champions Serena Williams and James Blake representing the United States, former No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt and Alicia Molik will play for second-seeded Australia. Top-ranked Kim Clijsters and former Wimbledon semifinalist Xavier Malisse join forces for third-seeded Belgium and Safin and Kremlin Cup champion Anastasia Myskina will represent Russia.
"The top four teams each boast a player who's been ranked number one in the world," Hopman Cup tournament director Paul McNamee said.
When Safin surveys the game of current No. 1 Andy Roddick, he isn't exactly intimidated by what he sees.
"Roddick has never beaten me," said Safin, who was a 6-3, 6-4 victor over the reigning U.S. Open champion in their lone meeting at Los Angeles in 2001. "I was kind of surprised at his rise because I never expected that he would make it so high, but he made the right decision to change his coach and his coach has helped him out a lot."
The towering, talented, temperamental Safin remains one of the only professional players on the planet capable of dominating a match with both his serve and return. Safin's gift for the game is undeniable, but his commitment to crafting a championship career was questioned even before his injury when Safin seemed to take a page from the Yevgeny Kafelnikov manual of minimizing results for a remarkable talent by overplaying an extensive schedule rather than pacing himself to reach peak form in time for the majors.
Three years ago, Safin looked utterly unbeatable, but has seemed completely clueless on the court for sustained periods of play. Safin's Davis Cup captain Shamil Tarpischev believes the former No. 1 has all the qualities necessary to be a great champion — except for one essential element: desire.
"There's no doubt about that. He could be as dominant as Michael Jordan was or Michael Schumacher, Tiger Woods, you name it," Tarpischev told Reuters in April. "Unfortunately, he has the talent but not the desire to be the world number one."
According to Tarpischev, Safin's athletic ability would have made him a world-class player in virtually any sport he selected.
"I don't think many people would disagree that Safin is the most talented player in the men's game," said Tarpischev. "He has the power, the agility, the speed, everything you need to be a great athlete. Not only in tennis. In fact, he could have been successful in most other sports, in football or basketball for example."
The arc of Safin's career has become a downward flight. He played powerful tennis and reached lofty heights during the 2000 season that saw him capture an ATP-best seven tournament titles, including a dazzling display of championship tennis in crushing Pete Sampras to capture the U.S. Open crown, and become the youngest man to finish No. 2 since a 19-year-old Boris Becker in 1986. But since that sustained season of brilliance, Safin has won exactly three titles in 35 months.
In writing off this season, Safin remains hopeful he can script a comeback story to silence his critics in 2004.
"I have no pressure, a lot of people think I'm kind of finished, but I will be back and I will be there to beat these guys. I have to," Safin said. "If I can get it back, I can be dangerous. But still, you know, it's the next year... I hope I'll be alive for next year."
Marat Safin - always the one and only