Sampras bows to 'future of tennis'

Pete Sampras, the winner of a record 13 Grand Slam singles titles, had just been blown away in straight sets in front of 23,000 spectators, the majority of them American, by the 20-year-old Marat Safin, the first Russian ever to win a singles title at the United Open.

Pete Sampras, the winner of a record 13 Grand Slam singles titles, had just been blown away in straight sets in front of 23,000 spectators, the majority of them American, by the 20-year-old Marat Safin, the first Russian ever to win a singles title at the United Open.

"I usually hold up the big trophy," the 29-year-old Sampras said, acknowledging that he had been out-gunned by a man he described as the future of tennis. "I didn't feel old," Sampras said. "I felt like I was standing next to a big dude. I was talking to [Tony] Trabert [a former champion turned television commentator]. He goes: 'He's a big man'. I said: 'Yeah, he's got a big game'."

Nobody ever doubted that, but we did wonder about the size of Safin's heart and the fragility of his temperament.

Here is a player who, within eight months, has gone from tanking to triumph. He was fined $2,000 for not giving his best effort in losing to South Africa's Grant Stafford in the first round of the Australian Open in January. Two months later, in Indian Wells, California, he threatened to quit the game.

"I didn't fight," he said. "You know how many matches I lost 6-0 in the second set?" [Not quite as many as the rackets he broke in temper]. "It was a disaster. I was just making Christmas presents."

His mother, Rausa Islanova, scolded him often enough about his attitude when teaching him to play in Moscow. So, too, did Rafael Mensua, his coach in Valencia, while schooling Safin in the powerful Spanish clay-court game from the age of 14.

Safin came to regard Mensua more as a father figure than a coach and stopped paying heed to him with regard to his tennis. His lack of fortitude on the court remained until early in the clay-court season, when Andrei Chesnokov, a Russian compatriot with a similar off-beat sense of humour to his own, became Safin's guide.

"I don't know how I understood Andrei better because he was explaining the same thing," Safin said. "It's very simple. He just told me that when I was playing bad, I had to fight. I became a fighter. That's it. It's not so difficult to play this game, but you have to fight on the court. If it's five hours, you have to run all over the court, point by point, be there, be tough.

"I didn't play my best tennis in the Barcelona tournament, but I started to fight. I had a tough match against [Mariano] Zabaleta, a tough match against [Albert] Portas, then my confidence came. I just found it in three days. I don't want to lose it now."

Chesnokov stopped travelling with Safin after the French Open. Tony Pickard, Stefan Edberg's former mentor from Nottingham, was hired to steer the Russian through the grass-court season, and Alexander Volkov, was with Safin here "more as a friend than a coach."

"You have to hold the feeling of confidence," Safin said, "because your game is there. The problem is in your head. You can play great tennis, but if it is only with the shots and not with the head, there's no chance."

Safin's successful summer on the rubberised concrete courts of north American (he defeated Sampras in the quarter-finals of the Masters Series event in Toronto) suggested that he would justify his sixth seeding at the US Open - though hardly to the extent of overwhelming Sampras, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, after an hour and 38 minutes.

"I wasn't at my best, but I think Marat had a lot to do with that," Sampras said. "He did everything as well as you can do it. He's going to be a threat at the French and the Australian. The grass [at Wimbledon] might be a struggle. But he's going to win many majors. I don't want to say changing of the guard. Obviously, this is a big win for him, but I'll be back."

Safin, packed and ready to leave for his next tournament, in Tashkent, was asked if he intended to spend the night getting drunk. He asked, with mock outrage: "Guys, do you want me to say 'yes' to put in the press?" Breaking into a huge smile, he added: "Between us, I hope so."

* Greg Rusedski beat the Armenian Sargis Sargsian 6-3, 7-5 yesterday to advance to the second round of the President's Cup in Tashkent. Another Briton, Jamie Delgado, beat the Brazilian Andre Sa 6-1, 5-7, 7-5.

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