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Uphill battle for Safin

Afflicted by a succession of injuries since the start of the year, Marat Safin will go into Wimbledon underprepared and under pressure as the unwanted tag of underachiever begins to stick.

tennis Updated: Jun 18, 2003 10:03 IST
Reuters
Reuters
PTI

Afflicted by a succession of injuries since the start of the year, Marat Safin will go into Wimbledon underprepared and under pressure as the unwanted tag of underachiever begins to stick.

Safin, regarded by many as the world's best player when he is on form, won the U.S. Open in 2000 and ended last year ranked number three in the world after helping Russia to win the Davis Cup.

But now he is in danger of losing his place in the top echelons of the game.

Safin's enforced absence from the tour has seen his ranking dive to 20th and he will be thankful that his second-round exit to Belgian Olivier Rochus at Wimbledon last year means he at least does not have the pressure of a mountain of ranking points to defend.

But with each tournament that he misses, whether it be through the wrist injury that kept him out of the French Open or the ankle injury which caused him to withdraw before his third-round meeting with Rainer Schuettler at the Australian Open, the worries are growing.

After taking almost a month's rest following Australia, Safin returned to reach the quarter-finals in the Masters Series event at Indian Wells but was then forced off the court again.

He looked impressive when he worked his way to the final in Barcelona in April, beating eventual French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero on the way, but then he pulled out of the title match with a stomach strain.

Then his wrist problem popped up again in Valencia at the end of April and Safin has not played since.

GOOD HEALTH

Safin, known for his explosive temper and habit of smashing rackets, decided not to attempt a grasscourt warm-up tournament before next week's Wimbledon but went to Moscow to train.

His agent insisted Safin would be ready. "He's in good health, he's asked me to get him some strings, rackets and kit. That's the proof that he's ready to return," Gerard Tsobanian told French newspaper L'Equipe.

But Russian tennis chief Shamil Tarpishchev warned that Shafin was still rusty.

"Yes, he will (play) but if you ask me if he is going to do well that's a totally different matter.

"Marat began hitting a ball just a couple of days ago because his wrist was still bothering him so I don't think people should expect much from him at this year's Wimbledon.

"He is well short of match practice so we just have to wait and see how it goes in the first couple of rounds. If he gets through then he might have an outside chance."

Safin's best performance at Wimbledon came in 2001 when he reached the quarter-finals only to lose to eventual champion Goran Ivanisevic. Grass is not be his favourite surface but his undoubted talent makes him a threat nevertheless.

MENTALLY OKAY

The lack of match practice, Safin says, will not be a factor at Wimbledon, where he is seeded 18th and could meet 1992 champion Andre Agassi if he gets to the fourth round.

"I am not a person who runs a lot, who spends a lot of energy on the court," Safin said. "If I am mentally okay, if nothing is bothering me and I want to play, then it is fine.

"If I stay fit my confidence will come back. I am going to be dangerous this year."

Despite his boast, there has been speculation that Safin might yet skip Wimbledon to prepare fully for the hardcourt season up to and including the U.S. Open.

Wimbledon has never been his favourite tournament. "I don't like the way they treat the players," he has said.

"There are small things that don't cost them anything and they make such a big deal out of it. If they treat us that way, we have to treat them the same. We want to be respected, the way we respect Wimbledon, even if it is not the best Grand Slam on earth."

Safin has worked with five coaches over the last three years but now relies on a former tour professional and old friend Denis Golovanov who travels with him.

Still only 23, Safin, is a talent waiting to be fulfilled.

"Good times will come," he said. "I have hopefully seven more years to play, so I think I can improve."

First Published: Jun 18, 2003 10:03 IST