|Saturday, September 9
Updated: September 11, 1:06 AM ET
Safin's victory could be sign of things to come
By Greg Garber
NEW YORK -- Champions are not bound by the laws of etiquette or physics. They arrive on their own time, usually early, and announce themselves in dramatic fashion.
Marat Safin, a 20-year-old Russian, stepped Sunday into the crucible of the U.S. Open championship, his first Grand Slam final, and throttled Pete Sampras 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. The match required merely 98 minutes. That Sampras is considered by many to be the best player ever and has the record 13 Grand Slam titles to back it up was of little consequence to Safin.
"He was too good," Sampras said. "I was trying everything. Whatever I tried, he had the answer. He returned my serves and passed me as well as anyone.
"I was hoping that in this big match he'd miss a few shots, get a little tight. It's a bit of a humbling feeling to have someone play so well for so long. It isn't often that I get carved, waxed like that."
When it was over, Safin got down on his knees and kissed the green court at the bottom of Arthur Ashe Stadium. It was an exuberant moment; first kisses always are.
Sampras had never been beaten in straight sets in a Grand Slam final. Previously, he had won 13 of 15 matches in that circumstance, including an astounding eight straight.
Well, at least until January's Australian Open, the king is dead. Long live the king.
Looking for a frame of reference? Two other men won the U.S. Open before their 21st birthday: John McEnroe, in 1979, and Sampras himself, in 1990. That fact alone suggests that Safin is something special.
"He's the future of the game," Sampras said. "He's going to win many majors. It reminded me of when I was 19. I steamrolled Andre [Agassi]. Well, I got steamrolled today. It was weird. Usually at the ceremony, I get to hold up the big trophy.
"I don't want to say changing of the guard. I'll be back."
One decade and a day after Sampras, 29, won that first Grand Slam, he looked surprisingly sleepy and sluggish. Not only is Safin nine years younger, he is three inches taller, five pounds heavier, stronger and quicker. He served bigger and better than Sampras, stroked stronger forehands and backhands and made sure-handed volleys when he needed to. He neutralized Sampras' great weapon, the serve, with such aplomb that it almost seemed too easy.
"I can't explain to you right now what I feel," Safin said afterward. "I am still in the match. I had the adrenaline all over my body in that last game. I was so scared. I can't think about how great it is to win a Grand Slam.
"I don't know, still."
A month ago, Safin prevailed over Sampras in a quarterfinal match in Toronto. The difference there was a competitive third-set tie-breaker. Sampras won 16 games in that three-set match; on Sunday, he was lucky to win 10. The crowd of 23,115 at the National Tennis Center was stunned into an eerie silence.
Sampras appeared fatigued as the match wore on, but in truth he had an easier path to the final. While Safin played four matches that went four or five sets, Sampras was only extended to four sets once, by Richard Krajicek. Over the last two seasons, Sampras has suffered at least nine different documented injuries. He tweaked his left groin muscle in Saturday's semifinal and had a bandage removed from his calloused foot during the first set by an ATP Tour trainer.
"I felt fine," Sampras said. "I wasn't at my best. But I think Marat had a lot to do with that."
Going into this year, Safin had a reputation for giving up.
"You know how many matches I lost 6-love in the second set?" Safin asked. "It was a disaster. I was just giving Christmas presents. Then my confidence just came. I found it in two, three days. I don't want to lose it now.
"The game is there. The problem always is in your head."
After he was bludgeoned in straight sets by Safin in the semifinals, Todd Martin was impressed with the young Russian's calm manner. There were times, Martin said, when it seemed Safin was laughing at him. Safin didn't crack any big smiles in the first set against Sampras, but he didn't crack, either. Rather, after a few crazy forehands and some adventures with Sampras' heavy first serve, he was a cool customer, indeed.
Safin won the first set by breaking Sampras in the seventh game, a truly rare event in Grand Slam play. Safin passed Sampras twice to move into position, then blasted a forehand service winner, leaving Sampras flat-footed behind the service line.
Safin's strokes are so smooth and so languid that it's hard to believe he's actually trying. Standing several feet behind the baseline, Safin had a remarkably casual posture, considering the enormity of his situation.
In the second game of the second set, Safin seemed to almost mock Sampras. He hooked a forehand from off the court for a winner, then ran impossibly far to reach a dropshot and flick back a winner, then sliced a dropshot from deep in the court that fairly dripped with disdain.
Safin took control of the second set with another seventh-game break. His exquisite backhand up the line passed Sampras for break point and then forced him to volley long. He broke Sampras again in the ninth game, giving the Russian three service breaks in the first hour of the match; previously, Sampras had been broken four times in six matches here.
And then, almost impossibly, Safin broke Sampras' next service effort, too. The third set played out much the same as the first two. Sampras' body language, which began to deteriorate late in the first set, broke down completely.
In the end, Safin stayed the course. Sampras earned his first break point (and a second) in the match's 28th game, but Safin was tight but steady. Sampras bombed a forehand wide to give Safin a match point and when he approached net for the last time, Safin clocked yet another backhand right past him for a winner.
Watching Safin move with such ease in his first Grand Slam final, one gets the undeniable feeling that this will be a long-term relationship.