Safin Wins U.S. Open Title

Monday, September 11th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) — Marat Safin started the year by tanking a match at the Australian Open and ended it by winning all his matches at the U.S. Open.

That's how it goes sometimes with 20-year-olds.

Safin's seesaw season had the ultimate ending Sunday when he beat Pete Sampras 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in the most one-sided Open final since 1991. No former U.S. champion had been humbled so thoroughly in 25 years. And very few times has Sampras ever faced such a withering attack.

``He reminded me of myself when I was 19 and came here and won for the first time,'' said Sampras, the Grand Slam career champion with 13 titles. ``The way he's playing, he's the future of the game. I didn't feel old. I felt I was standing next to a big dude.''

Safin fits the description. He is 6-foot-4, equipped with a big serve so necessary in modern tennis and all the other tools that go with it. He can whistle shots at 136 mph, the way he did at Sampras. And he can pass and lob and kiss the sidelines with returns.

All of this came together very quickly for Safin, who started the season in reverse. There were first-round losses in five straight tournaments for the Russian with the combustible temper who often sent rackets flying in frustration over his game.

One of the first-round flareouts occurred in the season's first Grand Slam, the Australian Open. Safin was fined $2,000 after his loss to Grant Stafford, charged for not trying.

``I didn't do this,'' he said. ``Probably, I was angry with myself. I return one serve on the fence.''

It happens. The officials were not amused. Certainly, Safin wasn't either, struggling with his game, unable to garner his huge talent, wondering if he shouldn't get out of the sport altogether.

Safin bottomed out in March at Indian Wells. He made it past the first round and then lost to Nicolas Escude. It was more than he could handle.

``I think about quitting the tennis at Indian Wells,'' he said.

There were two more first-round bailouts at Miami and Monte Carlo when Safin sought some help.

Friends calmed him down. There were conversations with Alexander Volkov and Andrei Chesnokov, who tried to explain some facts of tennis life to Safin.

The message wasn't terribly complicated.

``Just fight,'' Safin said. ``When you're playing bad, you have to fight. I didn't fight. You know how many matches I lose 6-love in the second set? I mean it was a disaster. I was just making Christmas presents. I cannot do this.

``So I start to fight. Then my confidence came. I start to play already with a big serve, inside the court, putting pressure all the time. I just found it in two days, three days. I don't want to lose it now.''

Safin's season turned at Barcelona where he won for the first time at the end of April. Suddenly, the game began to make sense to him.

And the results began to improve.

He won at Mallorca the next week, reached the finals before losing to Gustavo Kuerten at Hamburg and then won again at the Canadian Open. Significant in that tournament was a quarterfinal victory over Sampras.

It was a sign of things to come.

Safin arrived at the Open on a mission.

``If you come here, if you have in your head to make quarters, last 16, semifinal — what is this?'' he said. ``It's nothing. You have to come to Grand Slam tournament mentally to win.

``Why not? Why can't I win it? I have everything to be in the final. Even to beat Pete.''

There were some speed bumps along the way — five-set marathons against Sebastien Grosjean and Christian Pozzi and four-setters against Thierry Guardiola and Nicolas Kiefer.

Meanwhile, Sampras was on cruise control, losing just one set, looking like a sure thing.

Until Sunday.

Then it all came apart for Sampras. Safin played cool, calm, controlled tennis for nearly the entire match, winning point after point, never giving Sampras a chance.

``I was trying everything against Marat,'' Sampras said. ``I was trying to chip and charge, stay back a little bit. Whatever I tried, he had the answers. He returned my serve and passed me just about as well as anyone.''

Safin was making quick work of Sampras.

And then, at the end, he began to realize what was happening.

``When I was really scared it was in the last game,'' Safin said. ``I start with a lot of pressure on myself. That's why I make double fault. I didn't know what to do. I couldn't play. I couldn't serve. I don't know what's going to happen if I lose this game. I was so nervous, I can't explain what I felt.''

Safin survived the crisis and finished the match with a back-hand winner that zipped past Sampras. Now the Russian dropped to his knees and kissed the court.

He was the youngest Open champion since Sampras in 1990 and the first Russian to capture this crown. And the big thing on his mind was getting out of town for another tournament.

``I have to go to Tashkent,'' he said. ``Business is business. Everybody start to drink without me.''