So close to New York repeat, Safin thinks he's so far away

Notebook

Despite reaching final 4, 2000 champ flatly says: `I'm not good enough'

U.S. Open

September 06, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Marat Safin couldn't keep the smile from his face or the disbelief from his voice. He is the defending U.S. Open champion, but the No. 3 seed, as recently as last month, didn't give himself much of a chance of performing well here.

Even now, after beating Mariano Zabaleta, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2, yesterday to move into the men's semifinal, he was not making big plans for a return to the final.

In his path will be No. 10 Pete Sampras, who defeated No. 2 Andre Agassi, winning three of four tiebreakers last night.

"I'm not good enough," Safin said before the Sampras-Agassi match. "Pete, did you see him play against Patrick Rafter? Pete was just too good. And Andre, when he played Roger Federer, too good. It was a joke. I don't want to go on the court."

Safin, 21, was too good for Sampras in last year's final, and the incredible display he put on encouraged tennis experts to predict great things for the young, talented Russian from Moscow.

But Safin didn't excel. He played too much tennis, trying to earn the No. 1 ranking, wound up No. 2 and had just 10 days to recover before having to go to the Australian Open.

"I had no chance," he said. "Go to Australia. It's too hot. I get injured and I can't play for two months. I come back. Terrible tennis. Terrible. I came back at Rome. Too heavy. Five kilos, couldn't run. Even at Cincinnati [a first-round loss in August], I was terrible."

It is only now that he has rediscovered his game. He said he can run again and hit again and enjoy the game again. But it is September and the season is nearly over.

Reggie Jackson, he said, might have enjoyed being known as Mr. October, but for him, to be Mr. September at the Open is not a compliment.

"It's really sad to start the year so late," he said. "It is bad. It is September and I am trying to win matches."

So don't expect miracles. Don't expect him to handle Sampras as easily as he did here a year ago.

"It is a different time," he said. "I will try to do my best against either of them. And if I make the final, good. If not, I will have lost to a good guy. It's important to whom you lose."

Tracking rivalry

Sampras and Agassi renewed their rivalry last night, with Sampras' victory giving him a 17-14 edge in their competition.

Is that a rivalry?

Martina Navratilova, whose main rival was Chris Evert, was asked the question.

"Oh, absolutely," she said. "Hey, they've played so many times. They've been No. 1, No. 2 a lot of those years. It's fantastic for the game."

But your record against Evert is like 1,614 to 1,243, exaggerated the reporter.

"43-37," said Navratilova. "We played 80 times. Eighty times. Chris was way ahead and I finally pulled up even at 30-30. We kept playing. I thought that would almost be the end of it. Five years later, it was still going."

Shriver: `A first step'

Baltimore's Pam Shriver referred to her inclusion on this year's Hall of Fame ballot "as a first step" to eventually making it in.

"I felt pretty good, but it's only a first step," she said. "It's no guarantee. But there is hope because they put you on the ballot. You hope. You hope it happens now."

Shriver's 21 singles titles and 112 doubles titles make her one of just five women to have won more than 100 tournaments in the open era (since 1968). She said she takes hope of qualifying from Rosie Casals, who, despite never winning a major tournament and with an overall record similar to Shriver's, made the cut.

"I do think I eventually deserve to make it," Shriver said. "There aren't many who have won over 600 matches in a career. And I'm very proud of my singles. I ranked as high as No. 3 and stayed between No. 3 and No. 6 for a lot of years."

Of course, she added, it was the phone call that came from Navratilova in October 1980 that was the key "to all the good stuff" - the run of 109 consecutive doubles titles; the first-ever Grand Slam in women's doubles; being named the WTA Tour Doubles Team of the Year for nine consecutive years (1981-1989); and 20 major titles together.

The results of the vote will be announced after the first of the year, and those elected will be officially inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I., July 12-14.

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