On The Upswing?
Following a disappointing eight months, Marat Safin may have
found his stroke
It wasn't merely a championship, it was a coronation. Or so it
seemed when Marat Safin whipped Pete Sampras in straight sets in
last year's U.S. Open final. Safin, then 20, blended a
spring-loaded serve with a bludgeoning baseline game and was
anointed the cynosure for the next generation in men's tennis.
That he was handsome, outspoken and multilingual was a bonus.
Even Sampras, generally sparing with his praise of other players,
pegged Safin as the game's next big star. "Right then," Safin
says, "I was the king."
His reign didn't last long. Without a tournament title in 2001,
Safin entered the RCA Championships in Indianapolis last week on
a three-match losing streak. He was a woeful 29th in the ATP's
Champions Race and had a 21-20 record pocked by losses to players
like Peter Wessels and Juan Balcells. "It's been disgusting,"
Safin said after narrowly beating journeyman Andre Sa on Aug. 14.
"Right now, I'm impressing myself with how badly I'm playing."
Injuries were partially to blame for Safin's NASDAQian slide. A
strained back he suffered in last March's Dubai tournament
limited his mobility and, for months, made serving painful. Safin
says that he should have rested, but, wary of forfeiting a
portion of a $1.4 million ATP bonus for playing in all nine
Masters Series events (he loses a third of the bonus for each of
those tournaments he misses), he played when he was, by his
estimate, only "30 percent." He was also bothered by an aching
left knee that caused him to retire late in a recent match in
As the losses accumulated, his already shaky psyche became
fragile enough that it should have been swathed in bubble wrap.
"Every time you lose a match, the doubts come," he says. This
phenomenon manifested itself in inexplicable play. On one point
he'd be unnecessarily defensive; on the next he'd be too
aggressive and overhit. "You can tell he's not 100 percent sure
of himself," said Xavier Malisse, who beat Safin last month in
Safin also needed months to grow comfortable with a new Dunlop
racket, the product of a lucrative endorsement deal he signed in
April. And he has been adjusting to a new coach, Mats Wilander.
"When Marat plays well, he can beat anyone," says Wilander,
winner of seven Grand Slam events.
Safin can take solace in precedent. Last year he lost 12 of his
first 17 matches, one so egregiously that he was fined $2,000 for
tanking, and pondered quitting. Without notice--"It was like
magic," he says, shrugging--his skills and confidence returned. He
ended up winning a Tour-high seven titles, earned more than $3.5
million and came within a match of finishing 2000 as the points
race champion. "Tennis is a sport of momentum," he says. "For me
it's especially that way."
His fortunes may have begun to change again last week. After
surviving Sa, he played some of his most inspired tennis this
year. Whipping lasers from the baseline and belting serves
approaching 130 mph, he reached his first semifinal since March
and had a match point before losing 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (7) to Pat
Rafter in an exceptionally high-quality match. "When the week
started, I had no confidence," says Safin. "I'm not saying I'm
going to win the U.S. Open now, but I feel like it's coming
Seles in Top Form
New Training Regimen Pays Off
Monica Seles, who last won a Grand Slam event five years ago, is
playing her best tennis in recent memory. After reaching two
finals earlier this month on the California hard-court leg of the
WTA Tour, she made the semifinals of the Rogers AT&T Cup in
Toronto last weekend before losing to Serena Williams. Suddenly
Seles, 27, is a contender for the title at the U.S. Open, a
tournament she last won in 1992.
Although Seles has always been among the best hitters on the
circuit, there was little to presage this hot streak. In 2000 she
beat only one player ranked ahead of her. Early this year,
hampered by a stress fracture to her right foot, she went nearly
five months without winning a match, missed the French Open and
Wimbledon and was repeatedly asked whether retirement beckoned.
The cornerstone of her return has been her stamina, for years a
glaring shortcoming. While rehabilitating her foot, she hired two
trainers, Lisa Reed and Pat Etcheberry, to improve her
conditioning. In part because Seles's injury precluded her from
running, the trainers put her on a regimen that included biking,
swimming and weight training. She also brought in a new coach,
former ATP player Mike Sell, who doubles as her practice partner.
It all paid off. In San Diego the 10th-ranked Seles beat
top-ranked Martina Hingis and second-ranked Jennifer Capriati on
consecutive days. The next week, in Manhattan Beach, she played
11 sets in four days, including an exhilarating three-set win
over Williams in which Seles saved six match points. Last Friday
she defeated Jelena Dokic and sixth-ranked Justine Henin in the
span of five hours. (Rain had postponed her match on Thursday.)
Though she lost to Williams the next day, Seles, now ranked
eighth, was ecstatic: "These past few weeks have shown me that if
I keep working hard, I can still compete with any of the top
The Defiant One Is Back in Form
Offering a glimpse of the talent that enabled him to briefly
attain the top ranking in men's tennis three years ago, Marcelo
Rios returned from injury and played well last week. Sidelined
since the French Open after undergoing surgery to repair torn
ligaments in his left ankle, Rios defied his doctor's orders and
entered the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington, D.C. With
his wife, Juliana, and infant daughter, Constanza, looking on, he
won three matches, including a straight-set victory over the
tournament's defending champion, Alex Corretja, before falling
6-3, 6-4 to Andy Roddick, who went on to win the event. "I
haven't felt this good on the court in a year and a half," Rios
Rios looked completely different from the guy who was barely
mobile at the French Open. Among the quickest players in the
sport's history when healthy, he scrambled to prolong points,
returned well and unleashed penetrating ground strokes. He did
little, however, to shed his churlish image. In his match against
Roddick he threw his racket to the court after missing shots and
held a heated exchange with the chair umpire when a call went in
Roddick's favor. Asked whether he'd missed tennis the past 11
weeks, Rios said that he had. But, he quickly added, "I didn't
miss the tour. I find it boring."
by the Numbers
Venus Williams's WTA Tour ranking when she entered last month's
Venus Williams's WTA Tour ranking after winning the Acura
Coaches 102-ranked Alexandra Stevenson has employed over the past
Weeks that Martina Hingis has held the No. 1 ranking.
Weeks since Hingis has won a Grand Slam tournament.