Why Safin looks green on grass

Patience is the most crucial gift that Mats Wilander can bestow on his Russian protégé.
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The Independent Online

Scotland is high on Marat Safin's list of places to visit, which may prompt his sponsors to wonder if the 21-year-old Russian has suddenly developed a desire to toss the caber instead of his rackets.

Quite the contrary. Safin has relaxation in mind and is keen to discover if the lure of the Highlands, the glens and the lochs is as irresistible as the travel brochures suggest. "From the pictures I have seen and from what people have told me, I'll have to go there," he says.

But not, we trust, in the hasty manner of the American Murphy Jensen, who absconded from Wimbledon in 1995 to go fishing in Brigadoon, leaving his mixed doubles partner, Brenda Schultz-McCarthy, in the lurch. Safin does not fish. "Not yet. I will." Safin could give a similar short answer to playing well on the grass at the All England Club.

The man who blew the great Pete Sampras off the concrete in last year's United States Open final, and had an opportunity to finish the season as the world No 1 instead of No 2 behind Gustavo Kuerten, approaches Wimbledon more like a novice than a fourth seed.

This is his third visit. He lost to Ukraine's Andrei Medvedev in four sets in the first round in 1998, missed the '99 championships because of a sore elbow, and last year lost to the big-serving Czech Martin Damm in the second round after beating Galo Blanco, of Spain, in the first.

"Against Damm," Safin recalls, "I had a lot of very big opportunities. I missed them because I didn't know where to run or what to do on a grass court." His thoughts on the surface echo those of many another frustrated pilgrim. "It's a completely different game," he says. "The shots are different because the bounce is very low. You can't wait for the bounce like on a clay court or a hard court, and you only have two weeks before Wimbledon to focus on grass and get used to it. I'm waiting for my best results and I will do everything possible to have good results this year so that I can stay in the world's top 10."

That last sentence may be more significant than it seems. Safin injured his lower back during the Dubai Open in February but insisted on competing in the Masters Series tournaments that came afterwards, even though his serve was impaired. Missing a Masters Series event, or a Grand Slam, he reminded us, meant incurring zero points on your record. This in turn, he might have added, could have led to a reduction in bonus money at the end of the season.

Safin's powerful game was developed during six years he spent in Spain as a teenager. It is difficult to imagine the sturdy, 6ft 4in figure we see today as a beanpole at risk from the breeze. "I grew up very fast and I was very skinny," he says. "I had no muscles at all. If I had gone to the American hard courts my knees would have been broken. It was decided to send me to Spain, because the clay courts were better for the knees, better for everything, and also it's the kind of game where it's most important to be able to play from the baseline."

Tony Pickard, who guided Stefan Edberg to every Grand Slam singles title except the French Open, where the Swede lost to Michael Chang in the 1989 final, worked with Safin on his grass-court game last year. "I was very impressed," Safin says. "Tony was so easy to talk with and kept things simple. Unfortunately I could not make good results, but I learnt some good things."

Safin is currently coached by Sweden's Mats Wilander. Although Wilander was unable to win Wimbledon, possessing neither the serve nor the speed of Bjorn Borg, his skill and resilience took him to three of the four Grand Slam titles and to No 1 in the world in 1988.

Perhaps patience will be Wilander's most important gift to Safin, who says: "Mats won seven Grand Slam titles and was No 1 in the world, and he knows what it takes to play well on grass." The Russian adds: "Actually, I know how to play on grass, but I cannot do it."

In terms of visual impact, however, Safin hopes that Scotland lives up to Wimbledon. "Just seeing all those perfect grass courts and the way people take care of them is amazing," he says. "It's beautiful. But I've only ever stayed there for three days at most, so I didn't get used to it. I hope I will be able to understand it better and make sure that I can stay for at least one week."