Safin breaks out

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Well, the hot head that is Marat Safin finally broke through for his first title of the new year -- a year that is already 8 1/2 months old!

The long-awaited victory came this past Sunday for the up-and-down Safin, who soundly whipped compatriot Yevgeny Kafelnikov in Tashkent in the second- ever all-Russian final on the ATP tour. The 6-2, 6-2, 56-minute shellacking of Kafelnikov perhaps confirms that Safin is "back" after struggling with his form and a series of injuries amid his disappointing season.

The big Russian took the tennis world by storm a year ago as he piled up an ATP-best seven titles, including his first-ever Grand Slam tournament championship at the U.S. Open. But by capturing the President's Cup last week, the emotionally-delicate Safin snapped an improbable 10-month titleless drought -- with his last title coming at the Tennis Masters Series-Paris in November of last year.

Safin's current campaign started much like his 2000 season, with losses coming much easier than wins on tennis courts worldwide. But, whereas he turned things around by the spring of last year, it took the immature Russian eight months to right the ship this season. He started to show glimpses of his former self in Indianapolis and at the recently-completed U.S. Open, where he surprised most by soaring into the semifinals only to lose to the great Pete Sampras in a revenge match for the legendary American. Sampras, of course, was the Russian's victim in last year's Open final, as the upstart Safin subdued the former world No. 1 in three easy sets in Flushing.

Marat Safin
Marat Safin has rallied for 10 wins in his last 11 matches, including a second President's Cup title in as many years.
(Photo by Empics)
Safin also reached the semis at Indy two weeks before the most-recent Open, but lost to Aussie star Patrick Rafter in three rugged sets, 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (9-7).

But now it would appear as though we can refer to the Russian as red-hot, as the 6-foot-4 star has rallied for 10 wins in his last 11 matches, including a second President's Cup title in as many years. Last year, Safin clobbered Sampras in the Open final, and then traveled to Tashkent to capture the President's Cup in Uzbekistan -- one of the states of the former Soviet Union.

Safin reached a final in Dubai earlier this year, but gave way to Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero and a chronic back injury, which forced him to retire in the second set in the U.A.E.

Since then, Safin had looked anything but sharp, but he re-committed himself to his game by employing former world No. 1 and seven-time Grand Slam tournament champion Mats Wilander of Sweden as his latest coach. It's no secret that Safin has endured a coaching carousel the last two years -- including a whopping four coaching changes last year alone -- but maybe the soft-spoken, icey-cool Swede is the answer for a player who has probably broken more rackets than has notched match wins this year.

Dating back to Indianapolis in mid-August, Safin has won 13-of-15 matches after losing back-to-back first-rounders in Montreal and Cincinnati, respectively. As a matter of fact, the charismatic Russian went a pathetic 1-4 after reaching the Wimbledon quarterfinals in the first week of July.

He's officially caught fire over the last month, however, looking like the Safin of old, and when I say old...I mean last year. The Russian's won matches against the likes of Thomas Enqvist, Thomas Johansson and Kafelnikov in recent weeks, and has climbed to No. 11 in the Champions Race, where he finished second only to Gustavo Kuerten in 2000. As a matter of fact,Ku the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup in Lisbon last December to unseat Safin, and that's exactly what happened.

But when most thought the 2001 campaign would be a stellar one for the see-sawing, 21-year-old, it has been anything but that...until recently.

With the surprising surge, Safin has improved his chances of performing at a second straight Masters Cup (Sydney), which now is his goal for the year.

The Masters Cup welcomes only the top-8 players in the Champions Race.

There's never been any doubt about Safin's physical tools -- the blistering serve, a solid return game, powerful groundstrokes, and total court coverage -- he just needs to get his mind on the same page as his skills and sheer domination should follow.

If the Moscow native keeps up his torrid current pace, look for him to continue to add to his nine career titles and reach the prestigious Masters Cup event by mid-November.

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