New seedings system fails to assuage Safin

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The Independent Online

The placatory moves by Wimbledon designed to take the heat out of the controversy over their seeding for next week's Championships have done nothing to calm down Marat Safin, the world No 2 and US Open champion. Safin is rapidly emerging as the leading critic of the situation, replacing Andrei Medvedev, who famously savaged the tournament three years ago, hastening so many changes in arrangements for the competitors that Medvedev is now an enthusiast of the event.

But Safin, rumbling away at the French Open in Paris a couple of weeks ago about Wimbledon's seeding procedure, is not assuaged by the announcement that in future there will be 32 seeds at all the Grand Slams, beginning next week at the All England Club. Tomorrow we will know exactly how Wimbledon have juggled the positions of the leading 32 in the ATP and WTA official rankings to take account of their ability on grass.

What particularly needles the 21-year-old Muscovite (now a resident of Monte Carlo, as befits his high tax status) is that Gustavo Kuerten, the reigning world champion, winner of the French title at Roland Garros a week ago and by some distance the current world No 1, would probably not have been top seed for Wimbledon. Even though that has been rendered academic by Kuerten's decision to rest his aching body and bypass the grass-court season, Safin is incensed that Wimbledon may not seed exactly according to the rankings, as the other three Grand Slams do.

"I can never understand why they choose to make the seedings themselves," said the Russian yesterday. "For me, their way will never be the proper way. There are so many things I don't understand about Wimbledon's attitude. It has to change, things can't go on like this.

"They are nice to those who can play on grass and not nice to those who can't. Wimbledon will never be as special as the other Grand Slams, Roland Garros, the US Open and Australia. I love Paris because they treat everybody perfect, the atmosphere is great. We have juniors sitting in the locker room alongside us, it is very nice for them and us."

Safin's antipathy to Wimbledon was not eased when his coach, Mats Wilander, was refused permission to walk through the grounds by security personnel last week. Wilander, a former world No 1 and winner of seven Grand Slam championships ­ but not Wimbledon ­ had gone to the All England Club to check out the dressing room facilities and was refused permission to take a short cut out of the club to get to Southfields Underground station.

"They wouldn't let him in sight of the Centre Court," said Safin. "They made him walk another kilometre around the stadium. 'Sorry, you can't go in,' they told him."

The kindly explanation, of course, may be that Wilander, a quiet and modest champion, did not press his case or wave his arms. Or that the security personnel did not recognise who they were barring. After, all the 36-year-old Swede won his last Grand Slam at the 1988 US Open.

But the snub has only reinforced Safin's prejudice against the tournament. "Wimbledon could be much nicer to people," he insisted. "That's my opinion and I will keep it until something changes. I don't care if I am allocated only one ground pass for saying these things or whether they give me 10.

"If Kuerten went to Wimbledon as world No 1, some guy sitting in an office would tell him he can't be No 1 there. We have used the rankings system on the ATP tour for years, yet Wimbledon have to be different. If they changed their attitude no one would tell Wimbledon they weren't playing there. Then everyone would be happy.

"It doesn't matter to me that Pete Sampras has won Wimbledon seven times. If he is rated at No 4 in the rankings he should be seeded fourth at Wimbledon this year. He was seeded according to his ranking at the French Open, yet he can't play on clay, so why should clay-court players be discriminated against by Wimbledon? I think I have more options to play on grass than Sampras has on clay."

Then the impish side of Safin's character, which he can never subdue for long, surfaced as he grinned, "Everyone knows how to play on grass but it is one thing to know and another to actually play". Perhaps grass-court tennis will help to reduce the incidence of broken rackets which have littered Safin's path to the top. "On grass they only bounce," he said. He also saves money when they bounce, since Wilander has introduced a fine of $100 per broken racket.

Heavy rain delayed the scheduled start to the semi-final programme in the Stella Artois tournament at Queen's Club, London, yesterday, where Tim Henman was hoping to reach his second final in three years. Henman was facing the South African Wayne Ferreira, while the other match was a repeat of last year's final between Pete Sampras and Lleyton Hewitt, won by Hewitt in straight sets.

The leading Spanish player, Juan Carlos Ferrero, has withdrawn from the Samsung Open in Nottingham this week because of a recurrence of a hip injury. The 21-year-old Ferrero has played only one match on grass in his career but would have been top seed. That position now goes to the young American Jan-Michael Gambill. Britain's main contender will be Greg Rusedski, who is joined in the draw by two up-and-coming British wild-card entrants, Lee Childs and Jamie Delgado.

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