You heard it before you saw it. Just 10 minutes before match
time, the sound cut through the air again and again, loud enough
to be heard in every corner of the men's locker room: the
whistle of gut, graphite and Kevlar, the hissing of pro tennis's
most fearsome weapon. Pete Sampras's racket--built on a remote
Caribbean island in a factory that no longer exists, kept in a
Chicago storage room until called for, with a half-dollar-sized
sweet spot and hyper-narrow strings ratcheted up to one of the
highest tensions on the tour--was at work. There was no ball.
Sampras hopped from foot to foot in the middle of the room,
before a large mirror, pretending to hit backhands, one, two,
three. Then forehands. Then the serve: once, twice, three times.
Another Sunday in September, another U.S. Open final looming.
Sampras watched himself. He liked what he saw.
Everyone in the room heard Sampras warming up, everyone stole a
glance--security guards, attendants, hangers-on. Everyone except
the 20-year-old Russian, standing and laughing 15 feet away,
oblivious to Sampras. A year ago, when Marat Safin learned he
would meet Sampras in the first round of the 1999 U.S. Open, "my
mouth was like this," he said last Friday, dropping his jaw like
a terrified character in a bad horror flick. "Big man: There is
no chance to beat him. It was a crisis for me. I was already in
But now Safin stretched, grinned, took in one joke after another
from his friends. He hadn't gotten the chance to lose to Sampras
at last year's Open; Sampras pulled out with a herniated disk in
his back, and Safin went on to lose in the second round. A year
later, neither of them came into the tournament the same man.
Sampras, who rolled to yet another Grand Slam final at Flushing
Meadow after having set the men's record for major singles titles
with his 13th, at the 2000 Wimbledon championships, was back in
his old hard-court form and seemed ready to win his fifth U.S.
Open crown. He held an unequaled 13-2 record in Slam finals and
hadn't lost one in five years. His racket hissed through the air.
Safin didn't hear it. Safin laughed. After earning a $2,000 fine
for tanking at the Australian Open last January and moaning about
retiring from tennis in March because he was so frustrated by his
poor play, Safin overhauled his mind-set by deciding to never
again go down without a fight. Wielding the game's best backhand
and a monstrous serve, he galloped into the French Open
quarterfinals and beat Sampras a month ago on a hard court in
Toronto. Safin came off that match contemptuous of Sampras's
baseline game and cured of his fear. "Now he's one more guy
fighting to be on top, and I'm one of them also," Safin said
before the U.S. Open semifinals. "I want to beat him. With all my
respect, if I have to beat him, I will."
September 17, 2000
He did. In a performance so casual it was chilling, Safin
announced himself as the game's next big thing by dismantling the
best player ever 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. Never had Sampras been so
overwhelmed in a match of such importance, but this loss wasn't
simply a matter of running into a hot hand. Not since before
Sampras broke through to win the 1990 U.S. Open have all his
weapons looked so puny in comparison to those of the man across
the net. Sampras's serve has long been the best on tour, yet
Safin outaced him 12-8, consistently dropped in bombs at 130 mph
and faced only two break points all match, those coming only
after the issue was decided. Sampras is the tour's best athlete,
yet the 6'4" Safin covered the court like a tarp and committed
only 12 unforced errors. "It reminded me of when I was 19 and
steamrolled over Andre," Sampras said, alluding to his win over
Agassi in that '90 Open final. "I was steamrolled today."
Safin struggled early in New York, needing four sets to beat
Thierry Guardiola in the first round, five to defeat Gianluca
Pozzi in the second and five to overcome Sebastien Grosjean in
the third. From then on, though, he harnessed his temper (he's
broken about 40 racquets in anger this year) and disposed of Juan
Carlos Ferrero and Nicolas Kiefer to reach the semifinals,
somehow remaining loose and serious at the same time. He matured
a decade in two weeks. Just as important, so did his game. There
were moments--twice against Pozzi, Safin fired aces of 130-plus
mph on his second serve--when it seemed tennis was taking a
quantum leap before your eyes. "He's the future of the game,"
"It seemed as though he was laughing at me," Todd Martin said
after his straight-set loss to Safin in the semis. "Marat has so
much game. He makes shots that, five or 10 years ago, people
would laugh at and say he's just taking baseball swings. It's
awesome to see the shots he can hit. Especially as a big guy:
Stretching across his body, and not only flicking but hitting
backhand angles--it's amazing. This guy's a way better player than
Pete was 10 years ago. Pete was a relative unknown who played a
stupendous tournament. This guy, among the few who know the
sport, is not unknown."
Safin's breathtaking performance in the final was matched stroke
for stroke by women's champion Venus Williams, who followed up on
her breakthrough at Wimbledon two months ago by blitzing the
field at Flushing Meadow while unleashing an even more aggressive
style. Nothing in the women's game has prepared the viewer for
the sight of Venus jumping forward to furiously pound a Flying V
swing-volley. As Sampras's leaping overhead becomes more
infrequent, no shot in tennis is more thrilling to see than hers.
"There's a talent level now that overrides the necessity to
understand the game," Martin said. "Martina Hingis is maybe the
best women's tennis player I've ever seen, but she's not going to
win against some of these girls very often, because they just
have so much game. And as the game evolves, we'll start to view
'so much game' as the better tennis player."
Like Safin, the Venus of a year ago was more promise than payoff.
Her younger sister, Serena, then 17, won the 1999 U.S. Open while
Venus, then 19, watched somberly. Venus lost interest in the
game, and that as well as tendinitis in both wrists caused her to
drop off the tour for six months. Like Safin, Venus was spotty in
the early going of this year's Open but raised her game to
whatever level she needed to win. There was important work at
hand: not so much extending a winning streak that with this title
would stand at 26 matches. No, with one major apiece, the two
sisters were tied. Venus "wanted to get the second one before
Serena," said their mother, Oracene.
Lindsay Davenport hammered Serena in the quarterfinals and then
sparked a few days' controversy when she said, "Everyone was
expecting an all-Williams final. Martina and I had a little talk
and didn't want that to happen." That women's tennis had become,
as Venus put it, "like the WWF" didn't get much of a rise out of
her. Instead, Venus concentrated on exacting revenge on Hingis,
who had knocked her out of Flushing Meadow a year ago in the
semifinals. The result was a classic.
Before the Open all attention on the women's draw focused on the
fact that Serena and Venus sat on opposite sides and could meet
in the final. While the sisters have yet to play a high-quality
match against each other, Hingis and Venus collided last Friday
afternoon in another edition of the game's most riveting rivalry.
Engaging in one net-skimming, line-kissing rally after another,
they pushed each other to the limit, but when the third set
arrived, Hingis proved herself neither mentally nor physically
strong enough to withstand Williams's heat. After going up 5-3
and winning an astonishing 29-stroke rally to lead 15-30 on
Williams's serve, Hingis stood two points from the match.
However, she timorously turned an overhead into a playable ball,
and Williams leaped on it, driving a backhand past her to end a
21-stroke spectacle and shatter Hingis's will. Venus reeled off
four consecutive games to close out a 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 victory. "I
was afraid of winning," Hingis said. "I stepped back."
Davenport was no better in Saturday's final. She crumbled in the
face of little more than Venus's presence. Only two points from
going up 5-1 in the first set, Davenport dumped an easy volley
and netted a backhand. Her serve then deserted her, and Williams
smelled blood. When Davenport double-faulted to hand over the
first set, it became only a matter of time. Venus won 6-4, 7-5
and has combined with Serena to win three of the last five Grand
Slam singles titles. More important, with a more varied serve and
more consistent forehand, Venus has set a new standard for her
sister to reach. Hingis is technically No. 1, but with the year's
most prestigious titles in hand, Venus stands alone as the best
player in women's tennis.
The win brought on the usual Williams spectacle: Venus pulled
Richard out of the stands and onto the court before the trophy
presentation, and before heading out of Arthur Ashe Stadium to
entrance the media with his usual quotable hokum, Richard stared
into the crowd and yelled, "Straight out of Compton! And Watts,
too!" The voyage remains astounding: Venus, once poor and living
in inner-city Los Angeles, took a call last Saturday from an
effusive President Clinton and proceeded to chastise him for
causing traffic jams in New York City, ask for a tax cut and,
when he hedged, say teasingly, "Can I read your lips?" When the
line went dead, she shrugged to the stunned crowd around her and
said, "People are intimidated, but I mean, come on...."
Safin has yet to acquire such poise. When Clinton phoned him late
on Sunday night to congratulate and invite him to the White
House, Safin could barely muster more than a chorus of "Thank you
very much." But he'll learn. His manager, Gerard Tsobanian, is
sure that with his looks and intelligence and game, Safin "can be
the men's [Anna] Kournikova, except he wins tournaments."
Safin doesn't like this idea. "I'm a normal guy, nothing
special," he said. "I'm not going to be Kournikova but a man. I'm
not going to be Leonardo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt. I'm just a
player. The men don't have to be like a woman. He has to be a
man, first of all, and a player. Show people you are a man, you
have something between your legs, you're not just a good-looking
face. I'm a man. I showed that to people. I wasn't afraid to win
More than two hours after the final had ended, Safin sat on the
Louis Armstrong court. He had struggled in the first round at
this very place, thought he would lose and then pulled himself
together to begin his run to fame. Now he sat in a chair in
front of a big camera, taping an interview. Tsobanian stood at
the net. He stared over at the boy, and he seemed almost sad.
"His life is going to change forever," Tsobanian said, "and he
doesn't even know it."
With the year's most prestigious titles in hand, Venus stands
alone as the best player in women's tennis.