Safin regains dominant form

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Roger Federer might be in a league of his own right now, but Russian star Marat Safin appears to have regained the form that delivered him a U.S. Open championship four years ago.

The mighty Safin is freshly poured steel hot, having just won his second Tennis Masters shield in a three-week span this past weekend in Paris. Just two weeks earlier he captured the Madrid Masters by beating legendary American Andre Agassi in the semis and fierce Argentine David Nalbandian in the final at Rockodromo.

Safin's lucrative win in Paris came when he overwhelmed Czech qualifier Radek Stepanek in the title match, but his week also featured a key victory over his fellow former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt in the quarters. He also cooled off hot Argentine Guillermo Canas in his round-of-four matchup before exacting a bit of revenge on Stepanek, who stunned the powerful Russian in his native Moscow just three weeks earlier.

Marat Safin
Safin just captured two Tennis Masters shields in a three-week span.
Safin's popular Parisian run gave him career title number 14, pushed his '04 on-court earnings to just under $2 million and sent his career prize money over the $10.5 million mark. He also joined the legendary Boris Becker as the only other three-time winner of the Paris Masters.

The 6-foot-4 Safin also titled in Beijing in September, which means he's won three of his last six events and improved to 3-2 in his quintet of '04 finals.

The up-and-down Safin overcame a dismal stretch during the summer portion of the season, when he dropped four straight matches at one point, including three straight opening-round setbacks, one of which came at the hands of fellow Russian Dmitry Tursunov at Wimbledon. He would go on to suffer a second-round loss at the Athens Games and a first-round stunner against seemingly-washed up Swede Thomas Enqvist at the U.S. Open.

But following the loss to Enqvist in New York, Safin roared back to rattle off nine straight wins, including his title in Beijing, before succumbing to Andy Roddick in Bangkok. And since that "Big Apple" loss against Enqvist, the formidable Russian is 22-3, including all three of his '04 crowns.

The 24-year-old Safin will be seeded fourth at next week's season-ending Tennis Masters Cup event in Houston, where he'll carry in a five-match winning streak and a 12-1 record over his last 13 outings.

Safin stamped his place on the tennis map four years ago when he pasted American great Pete Sampras in the final at the 2000 U.S. Open. It appeared as though the sky was the limit for the big Russian, but he's struggled with injuries and immaturity over the past few years and failed to live up to the lofty expectations brought on by his wealth of tennis talent. He, of course, is no stranger to an occasional smashing of the racquet and an argument with a chair umpire.

But 2004 has marked a resurgence for the charismatic star, who's piled up a 50-21 record and a trio of titles this season, his best one in two years -- but one that's still a far cry from his brilliant breakout campaign in 2000, when he went 73-27 and led the ATP with seven titles on his way to finishing No. 2 in the world.

After dropping all the way to No. 77 by the end of last season (12-11 with nary a title), Safin has since climbed to No. 4 in the entry rankings, trailing only Federer, Roddick and Hewitt.

Since his run at the 2000 U.S. Open, Safin has failed to nail down a Grand Slam title, corralling a pair of runner-up finishes at the Australian Open in 2002 and earlier this year. But he seems to have regained that form that can produce a major title result, if he can get past Federer, who whipped the Russian in January's Aussie Open finale. Federer is a dominant 5-1 lifetime against Safin, including a perfect 2-0 versus the Russian this year.

Is Safin closing the gap between himself and Federer? Maybe we'll find out next week in Houston, where the exclusive eight-player Masters Cup field will also feature the Wimbledon runner-up Roddick, the U.S. Open runner-up Hewitt, Carlos Moya, French Open runner-up Guillermo Coria, Tim Henman and Roland Garros titlist Gaston Gaudio. The remarkable Federer is the reigning Masters Cup champ and gathered three quarters of this year's Grand Slam hardware (Aussie Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open).

In all fairness to Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Safin is probably the best Russian player we've ever seen, he just needs to add to his Grand Slam trophy case, where he still only holds one piece of hardware (2000 U.S. Open) to Kafelnikov's two (1996 French Open and 1999 Aussie Open). Kafelnikov, for what it's worth, also secured an Olympic gold medal in 2000.

Safin went a respectable 9-4 at the Slams this year, but ended on a sour note by incurring losses in his last two outings, at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

It's hard to get inside Safin's mind, but my guess is he's looking forward to a strong 2005 season, with the first major of the year coming in Melbourne in just two months.

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