- The Washington Times - Monday, August 20, 2001

Marat Safin has endured a tumultuous year

More of the same. Or just plain more. Isn't that what the tennis world expected from Marat Safin this season?

After all, the 21-year-old Russian enjoyed a breakout season in 2000, leading the ATP tour with seven titles, thrashing the formidable Pete Sampras in a shockingly one-sided U.S. Open final and finishing the year ranked No. 2 in the world the youngest year-end No. 2 since Boris Becker in 1986.

Armed with a punishing serve and powerful groundstrokes, Safin seemed a likely contender for the top spot. And sooner, not later.

Almost a year later, everything has changed. Safin heads into next week's Open ranked just 29th in the Champions Race. He hasn't won a title since last November. And since March, he's advanced to a tournament semifinal just once.

So what gives?

A celebrated racket smasher, Safin is, to put it mildly, a headcase. He was once fined for tanking at the Australian Open; last spring, he nearly quit tennis after a string of poor results.

However, Safin's notoriously volatile temper hasn't been his primary problem this season. Rather, he's been undercut by the usual (injury), the unusual (bad luck) and the downright strange (an ill-advised endorsement deal).

In March, Safin was forced to retire during the final of a tournament in Dubai, United Arab Emirates after suffering a back injury. But instead of taking the necessary time off to fully recover, Safin continued to play, entering the Masters Series event at Indian Wells less than two weeks later.

Problem was, Safin's bad back robbed him of his biggest weapon, a blistering first serve that often tops 130 mph. Left with his less-formidable second serve and greatly reduced mobility, Safin became a sitting duck. He endured a series of bad losses, dropping matches to immortals Juan Balcells, Arnaud Di Pasquale and Gaston Gaudio, among others.

And even when Safin began to get better right around Wimbledon he had little luck, draw-wise: In the quarters, he ran into streaking eventual champ and fellow ace-monger Goran Ivanisevic.

Compounding matters, according to CNNSI.com, are Safin's rackets. Enticed by a generous endorsement deal, Safin recently switched from Head to Dunlop, despite the fact that he's reportedly uncomfortable with his new equipment.

"One thing you never mess with is your equipment," a veteran player told CNNSI.com. "Marat took the money, and now he's paying the price."

That said, Safin could still go far at Flushing Meadows. He entered last year's draw as something less than a prohibitive favorite, and his fearless, big-ball game is tailor-made for the Open's hard courts.

More importantly, Safin is playing better as of late. Last week, he posted his second-best showing of the year, advancing to the semifinals at Indianapolis before losing to Pat Rafter in three sets.

He's also hooked up with a new coach Mats Wilander, the last player before Safin to win seven titles in a single year before the age of 21.

"My confidence is coming back," Safin told reporters. "I feel comfortable on the court. At least I can play tennis.

"You can't change many things. I'm just playing a little bit smarter, you have to see the [opponent's] weakest part and attack it."

Safin plans to take this week off and will work with Wilander on fine-tuning his game.

"If I play like this, I have a chance [at the Open]," Safin said. "It is very difficult to defend a title in such a big tournament. I still believe I can make a good result. You just have to get by those early matches."

Mighty Monica

While Safin struggles, Monica Seles is surging. Though the former world No. 1 will hardly be favored at Flushing Meadows that honor goes to defending champ Venus Williams Seles has to like her chances.

Visibly fitter than she's been in years, Seles appears to be regaining the stamina needed to compete with the WTA's big hitters, and her shot angles are as sharp as ever. Over the last two weeks, she put together a string of wins over three 10 players: Jennifer Capriati, Martina Hingis (twice) and Serena Willliams.

Seles' victory over Williams in a match that saw Williams blow six match points was her first. And though Seles saw her streak snapped with a loss to No. 2 Lindsay Davenport in the finals of the estyle.com Classic, she remained upbeat.

"Since coming back, it's been really great to play such a high level of tennis," said Seles, who missed the French Open and Wimbledon with a nagging foot injury.

At last week's Canadian Open, Seles defeated No. 6 Justine Henin before losing to Williams in two hard-fought sets.

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