- The Washington Times - Monday, September 11, 2000

NEW YORK Hail to the king.

The new one, that is.

In a commanding performance, Russian phenom Marat Safin emphatically announced his arrival in the upper echelon of men's tennis, crushing Pete Sampras 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 yesterday to capture the U.S. Open championship before 23,115 stunned spectators at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

"I can't explain what I feel," said the 19-year-old Safin, who captured his first Grand Slam title and became the first Russian to win the Open. "I'm the guy from Russia who had not a lot of spectators, so I had nothing to lose, completely nothing. I just played my game."

Heading into the match, all indicators seemed to point toward a fifth Open title for No. 4 seed Sampras, the greatest player of his era and owner of a record 13 Grand Slam victories.

Instead, it was No. 6 seed Safin who dominated play, pounding 130 mph-plus serves, ripping winners and breaking Sampras' normally overpowering service game with astounding ease.

"It's not too often I get waxed like that," said Sampras, who dropped a three-set loss to Safin in their previous meeting in the quarterfinals of the Canadian Open in Toronto. "He played so well. I tried to serve in the body; that didn't work. I tried to chip and charge; that didn't work. Everything I tried, he had an answer to. He reminded me of when I was 19 and I came here and won for the first time."

His groundstrokes smooth as polished marble, Safin broke Sampras four times a heretofore ludicrous proposition and negated Sampras' net game with a series of sideline-skimming passing shots.

"With his serve, I knew I had to risk sometimes," said Safin, who fell to his knees and kissed the court shortly following match point. "Return to his legs, then pass him. Otherwise, you have no chance to beat him. I didn't return better in my life."

For his part, Sampras had the look of a man aging by the second. Hair thinning, his gait tinged with lethargy, he entered the match a decade removed from the lanky, 19-year-old serve-and-volley virtuoso who in 1990 became the youngest man ever to win the Open and, at least for a day, it showed.

While Safin dictated points with powerful shot making and superior foot speed, Sampras was betrayed by digging volleys that didn't clear the net, backhands that shanked with alarming regularity, and a forehand that seemed to spray wide in every important moment.

"There are days you just don't have it," said Sampras, whose record in Grand Slam finals dropped to 13-2.

Safin's victory was all the more remarkable given his performance at the Australian Open in January, where he was fined $2,000 for lack of effort. Shortly thereafter in Indian Wells, Calif., Safin considered retirement only to bounce back and win three tour titles, two on the Spanish clay courts of Barcelona and Mallorca and one at Toronto.

"Before I was thinking about staying in the top 20," Safin said. "Now I'm thinking about being number one in the world. I have a big chance."

The son of a tennis-pro mother and a soccer-playing father, Safin is a tall (6-foot-4) athletic talent who was previously known more for his shaky confidence, spotty concentration and a penchant for racket-smashing temper tantrums by his own estimation, Safin has broken more than 80 rackets in the last two years than his game.

Yet throughout the tournament, he played with poise and patience. Serving for the championship, he refused to frazzle when Sampras pushed him to break point, nailing a swinging forehand volley to reach deuce and then whipping a backhand pass on match point.

"It's not so difficult to understand," Safin said, crediting former coach Andrei Chesnokov with reviving his game. "I've become a fighter. I fight on the court. If you have to run around for five hours on the court, you have to do it. You have to be tough."

Against Sampras, Safin was tough from the start. At 3-3 in the first set with Sampras on serve, Safin blasted two forehand winners past a charging Sampras to force double break point. After sending a forehand long, Safin then fired a whiplash return to earn the break a shot that left Sampras visibly stunned.

Serving to stay in the first set, Sampras hit a forehand long on break point. The rest of the match was more of the same, as Safin broke Sampras twice in the second set once on a Sampras double-fault and again in the third.

"He hit a couple of good passes to break me in the first, and kind of steamrolled me from there," Sampras said. "He was on. With his game, as big as he hits the ball, he's very tough to beat."

Sampras, who had hoped to follow his picturesque, record-setting twilight victory at Wimbledon with a 14th Grand Slam, said his loss did not indicate a changing of the guard in men's tennis.

"Not quite yet, not quite yet," he said. "The next time I play him, if it's here next year or down the road, I'll be surprised if he can play like that for that long… . I still feel like I lost to a young guy that's got a good future, that got hot today."

And when Safin is hot?

"The way he played today, he's one of the best in the world," Sampras said. "He serves harder than I did at 19. He's more powerful. He's going to be a threat here, and at the French [Open], and at the Australian [Open]. He's going to win many majors… . He's the future of the game."

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