Marat Safin, athlete

It takes an extraordinary tennis player to unseat Pete Sampras in three straight sets in a Grand Slam final. Marat Safin is that player.

A shining representative of Russia’s new breed of athlete, Safin burst onto the world scene last fall with his dazzling victory over Sampras in the US Open. He later went on to capture the #1 world ranking and would have ended 2000 in that same slot, had he not lost in the semi-finals of the Masters Tourney in Lisbon to Andre Agassi, thus ceding the #1 spot to Brazil’s Gustavo Kuerten. (Safin was the subject of a lengthy Nov/Dec 2000 cover profile in Russian Life.)

Perhaps it is just as well. Safin only turned 21 in January and may need more time to settle in to his role as a tennis superstar. Last year alone he earned over $3 million in prize money, and he is not the kind of guy to count his pennies. He flies only business class and stays in expensive hotels as he thinks “one earns money to make one’s life easier.” Indeed, Safin loves life in all its manifestations tries to make each day of his life a “fête.”

As he recently revealed to 7 Days TV weekly, he owns a $200,000 apartment in Valencia (in Spain, where has trained since he was 14), but he has his official residence in the tax haven of Monaco. He likes swanky motor bikes, water scooters and has a brand new Mercedes 215 and a red Ferrari parked in his garage. He also has a particular penchant for high flying night clubs.

So, in a way, being #2, as they say, just might make him try harder.

The 2001 season started off poorly for Safin, however. He played through an elbow injury at the Australian Open, when he should have stayed home and rested. And, much to his fans’ surprise, he lost both of his singles matches in Russia’s Davis Cup encounter against Slovakia in February. But he did rally back and, together with partner Yevgeny Kafelnikov, defeated the Slovak team in the doubles round. Coach Shamil Tarpishchev noticed in this latter performance a signal improvement in Safin’s net game. Kafelnikov also commented on the positive change – volleys having previously been Safin’s weakness – and said he expects Safin will be a much stronger doubles partner in the years ahead as a result.

Perhaps most significantly, Safin was able to restrain his temper in the Davis Cup match, not breaking a single racket in anger, which he has been known to do repeatedly. So, with a cooler head and a stronger net game, Safin has unquestionably given Russia a real shot at the Davis Cup. Never before has Russia had two players rank in the top ten.

Safin, who considered giving up the game not long before his US Open victory, may well be – as the Russian proverb has it — “harnessing his horses slowly.” If that is the case, and if the second half of his 2001 season rivals the second half of last season, his chariot may be difficult indeed to catch.

All of this is good news not just for Safin and for tennis in Russia. It is also good for the sport generally. For, with the imminent departures of the (nearly) indomitable Sampras and the charismatic Agassi, the sport will soon be pining for a new hero. The handsome and colorful Marat Safin, gifted with enviable height (193 cm), “perfect muscle structure” and a devastating ground stroke, is waiting in the wings.

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