The Big Breakthrough Last year Marat Safin smashed 48 rackets, but this year he's cracked the Top 5

August 27, 2000

HELP WANTED: Tempestuous Top 5 tennis player seeks full-time coach
to accompany him on circuit. Experience preferred. Must be able
to moonlight as sports psychologist. Flexible hours. Competitive
$$.

If you're interested in the above position, fax your resume and
references to the ATP Tour, attention: Marat Safin. The
20-year-old Russian, currently the No. 4 player in the world,
may be tearing up the tennis circuit, but since April he has
been unable to retain a full-time coach, relying instead on an
assortment of temps. "I'm starting to take it personally," Safin
says of the unfilled position. "Maybe nobody loves me."

That's hardly the case--and not just because Safin's
walk-into-a-net-post-gorgeous girlfriend, Silvia, is usually on
his arm when he's not on the court. As Pete Sampras and Andre
Agassi, now 29 and 30 respectively, enter their sunset years and
gradually relinquish the baton, Safin is emerging as the leading
young light in men's tennis. The centerpiece of the ATP Tour's
cheeky NEW BALLS PLEASE ad campaign, which tacitly acknowledges
that the sport is desperate for a transfusion, Safin is a star
for the new millennium. He's tall, dark and handsome; he speaks
three languages (Russian, Spanish and English in descending
order of fluency); and he's disarmingly candid. Not
surprisingly, he's fast becoming a fan favorite. Playing in the
RCA Championships in Indianapolis last week, Safin was mobbed
for autographs and photos at every turn. "I only sign for
beautiful girls," he joked before obliging Hoosiers of all
shapes and sizes.

Unlike another young, photogenic Russian tennis player featured
in the pages of this magazine (Anna Kournikova, who a decade ago
trained with Safin in Moscow), he has the results to justify the
hype. The proprietor of a 133-mph serve and unmatched all-court
skills, Safin has won three tournaments and more than $1.2
million in prize money this year. Though he has never advanced
beyond the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam event, his stamina and
heat-seeking baseline missiles place him on the shortlist of
viable contenders to win the wide-open U.S. Open, which
commences on Monday.

Regardless of how he fares at Flushing Meadows, the consensus on
tour is that Safin is a future No. 1. "He's only 20, he's a big,
strong guy, and he's got all the tools," Sampras said after Safin
defeated him en route to winning last month's Toronto Masters
Series event. "Being Number 1 and staying there is a whole new
ball game, but he's got the potential to do that."

Adds fellow Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who had a brief tenancy
in the rankings penthouse last year: "Marat is so talented, he
will be as good as he wants to be."

Such benedictions would have been unthinkable earlier this year,
when Safin played so poorly and with such little passion that he
contemplated retirement. In the first round of the Australian
Open, he lost to little-known Grant Stafford of South Africa
after an effort so desultory that he was docked $2,000 for
tanking. (That," says Safin of the fine, "was bulls---.") By
late April, Safin had won only five matches in 12 tournaments.
"Confidence is so funny," he says, pointing to his head. "It's
not coming, not coming, not coming, and you say, 'I have no
chance of beating anybody.' You just have to hope it returns.
When it does, then you feel no one should beat you."

His personal perestroika, as it were, has come at a price. Before
the Open Seat Godo 2000, in Barcelona in April, Safin parted ways
with his longtime coach, Rafael Mensua. They had been together
since Safin was 13 and Mensua took him from Moscow to Valencia,
Spain, to train year-round. "We were--we still are--like a father
and son," Safin says, "but it was heading to the point where I
would say, 'Ah, f--- you,' and he would say, 'Ah f--- you,' and
we might never talk again. Both of us needed a change."

With Mensua no longer in his box, Safin won the title in
Barcelona, took the trophy in the Mallorca Open the next week
and reached the finals of the Hamburg Masters Series event two
weeks later, losing in a fifth-set tiebreaker to Gustavo
Kuerten. Andrei Chesnokov, a former Top 10 player, worked with
Safin in the spring before returning to his family in Moscow.
Veteran coach Tony Pickard punched the clock during the
grass-court season, including Wimbledon. Former pro Alexander
Volkov has been with Safin during the summer hard-court stretch
but will return home to Russia after the U.S. Open. Given
Safin's recent success, does he need a full-time coach? "I'm not
disciplined enough," he says. "I get bored too easily."

On the court, certainly, he often has a hard time sustaining his
focus. Safin plays a high-risk style of tennis, sizing up the
lines and wasting little time massaging a point. When he's on, he
plays breathtakingly well, blending power with style and grace.
In his first match in Indianapolis, against Israel's Harel Levy,
Safin offered a tasting menu of his skills, smoking winners from
the baseline, pounding aces and knocking off clever stab volleys.

Yet when his radar is off a bit, the results can be disastrous.
Earlier this month in Cincinnati, for instance, he overhit
relentlessly and lost in straight sets to France's Fabrice
Santoro, a markedly inferior player. "Sometimes he's out of
control," Volkov says of Safin. "In that match I thought he was
going to have a heart attack."

When Safin is having a rough day, he often takes out his
frustrations on his Head graphite rackets. He claims that last
year he cracked 48 of his implements, and he is on a similar pace
this year. Fortunately for Safin, the ATP Tour has relaxed its
rules on racket abuse, on the grounds that it promotes "color"
among the players. "That's the way it should be," Safin says.
"I'm not like [the preternaturally poised] Stefan Edberg; I'm not
a robot. I'm an individual who gets mad. If I break a racket, who
does it really hurt?"

Safin reckons that he gets his, um, exuberant personality from
his father, Misha, a director at a municipal tennis club in
Moscow. (Marat's mother, Rausa Islanova, a tennis coach, trains
his 14-year-old sister, Dinara, a highly regarded junior.) But if
Safin's temper is of the hair-trigger variety, he is equally
quick with a one-liner. After Safin outlasted Sampras in Toronto,
a reporter congratulated him on having played an excellent
tiebreaker in the third set. "For you, maybe it was good," Safin
responded. "For me, I lost 10 years of my life."

Last week he was asked if he had designs on emulating Kournikova
and emigrating soon to the U.S. "Oh, so you want me to kill
myself?" responded Safin, who recently bought an apartment in
Monte Carlo. "They don't even let me drink a beer in this
country."

Then there's the matter of that coaching vacancy. "I can't
understand it," Safin says with mock earnestness. "You get to
spend 24 hours a day around me. That should be hard to resist,
shouldn't it?"

COLOR PHOTO: CLIVE BRUNSKILL/ALLSPORT

"I'm not a robot. I'm an individual who gets mad. If I break a
racket, who does it really hurt?"

"Marat is so talented, he will be as good as he wants to be,"
says Kafelnikov.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)