Safin Express speeds away

PALMA DE MALLORCA, MAY 8. Marat Safin of Russia will go into the fourth Masters event in Rome this week with a great deal of confidence as the man in form following his second title victory in two weeks here on Sunday.

Safin jumped 10 places in the ATP Champions Race 2000 to 17th after his 57-minute 6-4, 6-3 victory over Mikhail Tillstrom of Sweden. Unbeaten under new coach Andrei Chesnokov, Safin stretched his winning streak to 11 and added the Mallorca crown to the title he won the previous week in Barcelona.

At the trophy presentation, Safin and Tillstrom cracked open a bottle of champagne and gave themselves - and anyone else in spraying distance - a champagne shower. Chesnokov didn't stick around to see the final, but it didn't worry his 20- year-old pupil. ``He told me the right things and I think I passed my test,'' said Safin. Chesnokov had been talking all week about the need for Safin to fight for every point and the Russian didn't disappoint, beating Christian Ruud and Carlos Moya in tough final sets.

Tillstrom threw everything he had at Safin, but couldn't tame the Russian's serve when he needed to. ``That's the key right there,'' said Tillstrom, pointing to a statistic which showed Safin losing only four points when his first serve went in. ``I had two chances to break in the first set. I had an easy volley that I could have put away, but after that, he was just


``He served really well. I didn't play badly but I wasn't able to play my game because he was overpowering me.''

Since the Masters series in Monte Carlo, you may have noticed a few changes in Safin, changes which could take him to the very heights of the ATP Tour. He's started working with former top-10 player Andrei Chesnokov and he hasn't broken a single racquet.

It's easy to forget that Safin is only 20 years old. A towering figure standing almost two meters, he looks as though his body has been chiseled from stone, and he talks in an intelligent, considered manner beyond his years.

Safin leapt to fame in 1998 at Roland Garros when, aided by a massive serve and a sledgehammer backhand, he smashed Andre Agassi out of the event, and followed it up by dismissing defending champion Gustavo Kuerten.

`Confidence is everything'

But over the past six months, he's been like a little boy lost. Struggling to win a match and breaking an average of two racquets per tournament in frustration, Safin has even contemplated retirement. ``Confidence is everything,'' said the Russian at the Mallorca Open. ``I was afraid. I didn't know how to play tennis any more - I was missing everything. I was having a difficult time and I said to myself that if I am not doing very well this year, I would quit.''

The wheels of the Safin Express were replaced just as quickly as they came off, with a bit of help from an old technician. Chesnokov has known his countryman since Safin was a little boy, but had never considered a coaching job before. ``His agent said to me: `Marat has only won four matches this year and has lost his confidence.' I said: `I'm sorry, I have never been a coach before, I have only been a player,'`` said Chesnokov.

With a little persuasion, Chesnokov was talked into it, and took Safin to the practice court for the first time in Barcelona. ``He was looking around and waving at people passing by, saying, `Hello Sergio, hello Andre, hello Ericka, hello Monica.' I said, `come on man, how can you practice like this?' He hit the ball with full power, and there were so many mistakes. I said to him: `I don't want to see any power. You have to place each ball deep, and in.''

And he did, with stunning results that have included wins over Nicolas Lapentti and Magnus Norman in Barcelona, and Carlos Moya on his home territory in Mallorca.

But Chesnokov is quick to point out that Safin was already an established player before they hooked up. While the mighty one's former coach and mentor Rafael Mensua is no longer with him on a day-to-day basis, he is credited with nurturing Safin, and the Russian paid tribute to him after winning in Barcelona.

But Safin also knows what Chesnokov brings to the table. ``He pushes me to practice a lot, to fight, to work, and to do things in a professional way. It is good for the crowd if you are emotional on court but it can be bad for your game.'' And bad for your tennis racquets!

''`Marat told me he broke 48 racquets last year',`` said Chesnokov. ''Sometimes it's good to throw the racquet and break it, but not every week! 48 racquets, that's quite a lot isn't it?``