L'ÉQUIPE, NOVEMBER 2000
BY FRANCIS HAEDENS
Thanks to Lola for the article and Alex for the translation!
SAFIN, THE BIONIC CHAMPION
Since April, and even more since his victory at US Open, Marat Safin crushes all who come his way. But his extraordinary power is not the only thing which explains the domination he exerts on the ATP tour "His primary attribute is not having any weakness", said Peter McNamara. In his game there are no cracks which are made accessible by his opponent to crush him. This is a complete depiction of his game winning tactics. We painted here a picture of what we consider the "Bionic" Marat.
Safin's serve is one of the best on tour. His serving speed without difficulty can be as fast as 200 km/h. His ball is heavy, long, leaping, and moreover, thanks to the flexibility and with the amazing force of his wrist, he can find exeptional angles. We've seen him at 2-1 in the tie break of the 2nd set at the final of Bercy (2000), make a successful ace uncrossed fastball which left Philippoussis on the spot. This type of shot, made for top left-handed servers like Rusedski or Ivanisevic (in the heat of the moment), Safin successfully handles it with his right hand. He throws his ball low, a little behind him, about ten centimeters surrounding the top of the impact with the racket and strikes it with an extremely slackened arm. The throwing of his serve makes it very difficult to read, but requires a speed of execution which is above average. For Ion Tiriac, which was, above all, Ivanisevic's coach , it is a weakness which has no sense of urgency. He believes safin should correct it in the future. This theory is debatable.
Safin's baseline game, with his backhand and to a lesser extent his right-hand, approaches the perfection if we calculated the average between the power and the lowest possibillity of error. His backhand play for the most part, with two hands (but which he can without a doubt carry out one-handed in any event.) This enables him to find all angles notably, his accelerated release along the line. His right arm extends during this movement where his arms remains glued to his body and advances the racquet forward. This preparation remains without a doubt to be the simplest, but it's the left hand, with a full wrist impact at the last moment which directs the ball and gives it his final blow. The exceptional flexibility and the force of his wrists allow him to do this kind of shot. His power remains impressive, even when he strikes while moving back or without any stability. His righthand release executes a traditional loop of moderate magnitude. It is not completely as powerful as his backhand, but Safin does it as well cross, uncrossed or along the line with a speed and a weight quite impressive. In regards to the effects, and more precisely about the top spin, Safin found the ideal way of excuting it between the striking of Kuerten, more "spinning", then one of Philippoussis, more power which allows him to play effectively on all surfaces.
SLEEKNESS AND SPEED
The technical qualities just mentioned is of greater value because it is served by sleekness and an exceptional speed of execution for a boy of his size. It is with these assets that Safin, all in all, possesses a return serve worthy of Agassi's, which caused Pete Sampras to experienced total anguish in the final of the US Open. "He is the only player who has successfully been able to achieve three half-volleys from the baseline without losing effectiveness, admires Tiriac. Not even McEnroe was able to produce two of these shots". These qualities refrain the Russian from moving back much more than one meter behind his baseline and to change the course of a play which began poorly with only one blow of a racket "Safin sees the ball larger than the other players", said McNamara, quite as admiring as Tiriac.
The Russian's leg movements leave Tiriac wanting more, "his leg movements must clearly improve, he says, and no one should give me his size for a excuse. We can see basketball players, much larger than him with much better leg movement than his. This is something he must improve." Blunt, but a true statement. McNamara is less persistent and says without hesitation: "his leg movement and his speed are incredible for a guy of his size". We say for the conclusion, the best case scenario, he should be better prepared for certain shots, but his capacity to compensate and make necessary adjustments with the force of his arms and his wrists does not make this improvement essential.
With Marat Safin's almost picture perfect technical qualities, there is only one dark area: his volley. Taking into account his size, the Russian is obviously vulnerable on the low balls, but thanks to his steel wrists, he manages to lift the balls without having to bend his legs. Despite his weakness at volleys, we see his improvement at the net . He can, with his backhand and right hand from the baseline, volley where he wants. But, as he does not cross the ball, his hit lacks edge "He feels the volley, say Tiriac, but it is necessary that he plays more while advancing". McNamara, who is a volley specialist, makes a remark while rolling his eyes filled with fear: "It is certain that Safin does not have the same instinct of the volley as the Australian. It is a part of the game in which he can improve and I believe it concerns the other players! "
Last year still (1999), Marat Safin was a large kid who consistently struck the ball without the knowledge of the game. In less than 12 months, he learned, with the assistance of Andreï Chesnokov, in particular, applying 80% of his phenomenal power, which is enough for him to dominate the majority of his opponents. He also agreed to make faults, including the harshest one, without losing his head as it happened to him many times before. The control of his muscles and his brain constitutes one of the keys of his success. The fact that he managed to acquire this control in less than one season (2000) proves that the Russian possesses above average mental qualities and is rather rare for a player of his age. Have we ever seen a number 1 that happens to be immature?