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Young Gun Safin Hits the Mark

September 10, 2000

Pete Sampras summed up his shock straight sets defeat at the hands of Marat Safin as follows:

"He reminded me of when I was nineteen and won here for the first time. Whatever I tried, he had the answers. He really did, and I give him credit. He had all the answers."

But what exactly was the question? It was bigger, more encompassing than merely: who will be the US Open Men's Singles Champion in 2000? It also involved the theory which the media has made so much of in recent months: will this year see a 'changing of the guard', the old order led by Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, who have held sway at the top of the game for so long?

The twenty-year-old Russian beat the veteran American ace 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, to become the first player from his country to win the American Grand Slam title, and the youngest to do so since Sampras himself, who was only nineteen when he landed his first major here in 1990. The one-way score-line reflects the ease of Safin's victory.

Although Safin's prodigious talents had been recognised on the circuit for some time, there was speculation concerning his suspect temperament. He became as well-known for his on-court displays of petulance and temper (his tally of broken rackets is nearing 40, for this year alone), and at the Australian Open in January he was even fined for giving up in a match and not trying.

But there was no sign of that flaky character today. Serving at up to 136 mph, including twelve aces, Safin did not face a single break point until the last game. Sampras finally had two, after a double-fault from the Russian - only his second of the match. But the younger man soon erased these, and his next backhand pass whizzed past Sampras, to make the Championship his.

Savouring his victory in the press room afterwards, Safin seemed almost as bemused as Sampras. Asked how he managed to return Sampras's serve so well - the serve generally considered to be the hardest to read in the game, and which has carried the American to 63 career titles to date - Safin replied guilelessly: "You think I know?" His modest candour was refreshing, as he went on:

"Actually, I had nothing to lose. I went on the court just to play, thinking if I win, it would be great. If I lose, it would not be a lot of trouble. So I just played my game. I was relaxed."

Perhaps that was what made the difference: nervelessness. For his part, Sampras explained:

"I knew he was going to play well, but I didn't think he was going to play that well. I figured he would get a little nervous." Sampras also went on to observe:

"He will be a marked man now. Guys are going to want to beat him even more. It's a lot of pressure."

Sampras should know, having been the man with the target on his chest for so long himself.

But although Safin played the match of his life, with a resounding result, it is unlikely to mean there will be a passing of the old order just yet. As Sampras showed after he won his first Grand Slam a decade ago, there is much more to reaching the top of the game - and staying there - than one brilliant match played on a fortuitous day. It took even the maestro, winner of more Grand Slams than anyone else in tennis history, a couple of years to figure this out and consolidate his naturally gifted game into a perennially pre-eminent one. It was 1993 before he won his next Slam.

But the supreme champion was magnanimous in defeat, saying of the man who had put him in the uncomfortable position in which he is more used to putting his own opponents:

"He serves harder than I did at nineteen. He doesn't have many holes in his game, and moves well for a big guy. He passed and returned as well as anyone I have ever played. He is going to win many majors."

However, Sampras's words to the crowd at the trophy presentation gave the match a slightly different slant:

"I lost to a young guy who was hot today."

How often Safin can elevate his game into the hot zone, remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Sampras is not likely to go cold on his own tennis career. As he summed up:

'I feel like I lost to a young guy that has got a great future. But the next time I play him, I'll be surprised if he can play like that for that long. I don't think it's a 'changing of the guard'. Obviously, it's a huge win for him. But I'll be back."

It would be a great loss to tennis otherwise.

Related Link: Presscon

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