Tennis: Safin reaches for the summit

Chris Bowers in Paris assesses a potential new force in the men's game
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The Independent Online
THE 1980s generation, already an established feature of women's tennis, announced its presence on the men's circuit last week in the tall form of Marat Safin, the 18-year-old Russian who disposed of Andre Agassi and Gustavo Kuerten in the first five days of the French Open.

Safin is 6ft 5in, apparently fearless, and belts the ball with ferocious power. Agassi was taken by surprise, Kuerten was warned but still was not ready; both were despatched in five sets. Yesterday it was the turn of Daniel Vacek to feel the force, and he succumbed in four. Once he finishes at Roland Garros he heads down from Paris to Split to play in a Challenger tournament. From a grand slam to a week among the wannabees. He will then continue his split-level career by trying to qualify for Wimbledon as his ranking has not been high enough to put him in the main draw.

The latest find in men's tennis is unremarkable to look at. The appearance of an overgrown adolescent suggests there is probably still a tube of anti-spot cream in his sponge bag. The same clothes that look so trim and clean cut on Tim Henman look baggy and ill-fitting on Safin.

But when he opens his mouth, a burgeoning personality emerges, along with a freedom which comes from everything still being something of an adventure. "I have nothing to lose," he says. "I'm ranked 114 in the world, people don't expect things of me."

That is true, at least for the moment, but when people's perceptions of him change, heseems quite capable of coping with the pressure that will bring. He has his head screwed on. "If I've been playing unbelievable, maybe it's just luck. Against Andre and Gustavo I started to hit and everything went in. Maybe on one or two days I can play like this, but maybe the next day I will hit everything out."

He is also aware that one sniff of success, even as sweet as Kuerten's victory here last year,does not a career make. "One tournament you play good and one bad, that's not a good player," he says, "you have to play the whole year more or less at the same level, that's a good player."

His refreshingly unpretentious idealism extends to hissporting approach. "If you see the ball is good, it's good," he said, referring to a call he overruled in Kuerten's favour. "I can't say 'out' if I see the ball is good. You have to be friendly on the court, you have to be a gentleman." It might not last.

Safin was recognised early as a great talent, and with the help of sponsorship from a Swiss merchant bank, he was taken from his home in Moscow to live and train in Spain. Not the Barcelona-based elite group, but one in Valencia playing on the Challenger circuit. As a result, his Spanish is as fluent and relaxed as his tennis, but he is still short of English.

Safin's powerful game, based around a big serve and blistering ground strokes, is supplemented by a lovely touch around the net, and should suit the grass of Wimbledon.

Although he will enter the top 100 in the first post-Paris rankings, Safin will still have plenty of work to do to build his career, but he looks a remarkable talent, both technically and mentally. A future at the very highest level beckons.