Four powers behind Russian revolution

Ronald Atkin analyses the mix of mentors who led Safin to supremacy
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The Independent Online

Until the final weekend of the tournament, the transportation people at the US Open didn't know who Marat Safin was when he phoned to ask for a courtesy car to the tennis. Now everybody knows.

Until the final weekend of the tournament, the transportation people at the US Open didn't know who Marat Safin was when he phoned to ask for a courtesy car to the tennis. Now everybody knows.

The swing in Safin's fortunes this year is astonishing. Here is a player who was fined £1,400 for not trying at the Australian Open in January, who then lost a string of first- round matches, who openly contemplated quitting tennis in disgust, and who was becoming better known for smashing rackets than for using them to win points.

Four men have been responsible for turning Safin around so spectacularly: two Russian former players, Andrei Chesnokov and Alexander Volkov; the management guru Ion Tiriac; and the British coach Tony Pickard. Safin had won only four matches by April when, at Monte Carlo, Tiriac replaced IMG as his representative. The straight-talking Chesnokov was immediately installed in his first coaching job to tell Marat a few home truths about commitment, and the 20-year-old from Moscow won his next two tournaments, Barcelona and Majorca, was runner-up at the German Open and quarter-finalist at the French Open, all on clay.

For the grass-court segment of the season, Tiriac turned to Pickard, Stefan Edberg's former long-time coach, for help. By then, in any case, Chesnokov and Safin had had one argument too many.

"The young man was in danger of destroying his talent," said Pickard. "He had to start to learn to be a pro and be disciplined. We worked very hard on that for a month. OK, you aren't going to be able to build a mountain in a month, but we went quite a long way. I taught him how to volley, which he wasn't very good at, and can say I improved him 300 per cent, because he won three matches on grass where he had never won one before.

"He also picked up my comment that he needed to be quiet on court, channelling his energies into beating opponents instead of himself. And Volkov, who was with him as friend and advisor in New York, must have been saying things he picked up on, too."

Pickard monitored Safin's matches by TV. "I phoned him after his first round, warning him again about keeping quiet." The warning needed to be repeated after quarter-final victory over Nicolas Kiefer, when Pickard also told the Russian what to expect in the semi-final against Todd Martin. "In that match he didn't play great but he stayed calm."

Against Pete Sampras in the final the only sound was of the great champion disintegrating. "Safin was fantastic," said Pickard. "That performance equals what Pete did to Andre Agassi when he won the title for the first time in 1990, and the way Edberg destroyed Jim Courier to win there in 1991.

"I honestly thought he could win because if he got to the final his tail would be up so much. But nobody could have foreseen in their wildest dreams that he would demolish Sampras the way he did. Even the young man himself couldn't have seen that one down the road."

Safin phoned Pickard from Frankfurt airport on Tuesday en route from New York to the tournament in Tashkent. "He said to me, 'I can't remember too much about it'," said Pickard. "I told him, 'The way you were going, you didn't need to.' Then he said, 'I'm three in the world now,' so I said, 'OK, but it's no good being No 3 for six months, it needs to be for six years. Then you would be able to call yourself a world- class player.'

"He is an enormous talent, now he has to get himself organised to take the No 1 spot away from Sampras. This is fabulous for the game. For a long while Sampras was daytime and the rest were nighttime.

"Now there is going to be competition for the top, something we haven't seen since the days of Edberg and Boris Becker. It's very exciting."

In Sydney for the Olympics and waiting, he said, for the chance of a chat over a soft drink with Safin, is Tiriac. As might be expected, he issued a cautionary note or two to the flood of praise. "Marat definitely has it, though there is enormous room to improve in every aspect of his game. But he has everything he needs. More than that, he is still very clean in his head. If he can keep it that way he would make a good No 1 for years to come. I believe he is going to be as hard-headed as Boris was but he needs a coach to spot the holes and block up those holes. To try to make a champion out of him, and a man as well."

But Tiriac cautioned against too much discipline. "He reminds me of Goran [Ivanisevic]. Everybody tried to control Goran too much. When they succeeded it was not Goran any more. If Marat wants to break a racket from time to time, let him break it and pay the fine."