Safin graduates from school of knocks

Russia's loss is Spain's gain as a teenager makes a name for himself.
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The Independent Online
GIVEN RUSSIA'S passion for sport, particularly disciplines demanding mental strength as well as physical fitness, the evolution of their tennis players has made Britain seem prolific by comparison.

Marat Safin, for example, an 18-year-old Muscovite who made an impact at the French Open last June, was moulded on Spanish clay with the assistance of sponsorship from a Swiss bank. The bank funded the first three years of the four years Safin has spent training in Valencia, being schooled in the groundstroke skills that have enabled Spain to raid the world rankings.

Spain already had 19 representatives in the French Open men's singles (and nine in the women's event), before Safin, ranked No 116, underlined the quality of their methods by qualifying for his first grand slam tournament and defeating Andre Agassi in the opening round, 5-7, 7-5, 6-2, 3-6, 6- 2.

Agassi, who had accounted for the 6ft 4in Safin in straight sets when the United States played Russia in the Davis Cup in Atlanta a month earlier, said he "felt something happen" in his right shoulder during the first set of their match in Paris.

There was nothing physically wrong with Safin's second-round opponent, Gustavo Kuerten. Safin outlasted the Brazilian, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4, becoming the first qualifier to defeat a men 's grand slam singles champion in the open era.

Safin lost in five sets to the Frenchman Cedric Pioline in the fourth round. Safin then received a wild card for Wimbledon where, playing on grass for the first time, he lost in four sets to Ukrainian Andrei Medvedev in the opening round. The Russian finished his first year at the majors by advancing to the last 16 of the United States Open.

Due to mark his 19th birthday on 27 January, during the second week of the Australian Open in Melbourne, Safin, ranked No 48, seems to have what it takes to add to Russia's periodic influence on the sport.

Tennis, tailored for the lawns of capitalists, was hardly likely to be the game to play in Russia in the early part of the century, and the advent of open tennis 30 years ago did little to encourage the Soviet Union to promote its players.

Alex Metreveli, a Georgian, reached the Wimbledon men's singles final in 1973 and Olga Morozova was a finalist at both Wimbledon and the French Open in 1974. Shortly afterwards, the Soviet authorities decided not to risk allowing athletes out of the country unless they were participating in Olympic sports.

The Soviet attitude changed when tennis was reinstated as a medal sport for the 1988 Olympic Games. The snag, as far as the players were concerned, was that the greater part of their prize-money was paid directly to the Soviet Tennis Federation.

In 1989, the Muscovite Andrei Chesnokov hired an agent. His example was followed by Natasha Zvereva, from the Belarus city of Minsk. Chesnokov and Zvereva announced that they did not agree with handing their prize- money to the national federation.

The situation was resolved in 1990. Chesnokov and Zvereva were allowed to keep their prize-money and arrange their own schedules, provided they paid their own expenses and made themselves available for events like the Olympics.

In April 1990, Chesnokov became the first Soviet to win a major tour event, the Monte Carlo Open. Six years later, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, from the Black Sea resort of Sochi, made the crucial breakthrough at a grand slam, winning the 1996 French Open men's singles championship, and also the doubles title.

Although there is a men's and a women's professional tour event in Moscow to help sustain interest, Safin's decision to train in Spain may be part of a trend among young Russians to work in other countries.

The 17-year-old Anna Kournikova has practically grown up in Florida. "I have known Marat since I was five," Kournikova says. "When we went to America the first time with a group, it was with 15 kids. I practised with him in Russia many times. I think he's got a great game. It probably helped him a lot that he's practised in Spain, not in Russia."

Safin was initially coached by his mother, Louisa Islanova, who was ranked in the top 10 in Russia. He has had a Spanish mentor, Rafael Mensua, since the age of 14, and names Jose-Francisco Altur, a left-hander from Valencia, as the player he most admired. We shall be hearing more of El Ruso.