NEW YORK - Despite his meteoric rise this year in the computer rankings, despite his memorable summer winning tournaments around the world, Marat Safin of Russia knew the obstacles he was trying to overcome in yesterday's U.S. Open men's final against Pete Sampras at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Despite his recent victory over Sampras in Toronto, Safin clearly understood the challenge he was facing. Here was Sampras, the winner of 14 major championships and coming off his record-setting victory at Wimbledon. Here was Sampras, at 29 still dangerous and still the crowd favorite at a tournament he had won four times.
"I'm the guy from Russia who had not a lot of spectators here," Safin said. "So I had nothing to lose. I was relaxed. He has a lot of pressure on him because everybody wants him to win here. I'm just one guy who came here. I didn't feel any pressure, except the last game. Then I start to think, 'Yes, I can win.'"
Safin, 20, might have been the last person in the place to come to that realization. By the time he got around to serving out the match, by the time one final blistering backhand became another yellow blur past the lunging Sampras, the end of his 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 victory seemed a formality.
Just not to Safin.
"Pete, he became a little bit bigger on the court," Safin recalled later, long after he had won the first major championship of his rapidly ascending career, as well as an $800,000 first-place check and silver loving cup that went with it. "He was all over. He became huge. The racket is huge. Everything is huge."
For more of their 98-minute match, it was the 6-foot-4 Safin who seemed larger than life, certainly a lot faster and more proficient than the shockingly slow Sampras. After breaking Sampras in the seventh game in each of the first two sets, then going up 5-3 in the third set, Safin finally showed some nerves.
It was about then that he began to think about what he was about to do.
"When I was really scared, it was in the last game," Safin said. "Actually, the last two games. I knew if I would miss this, I can lose. I start with a lot of pressure on myself. That's what made me double fault."
No explanation was necessary. Safin turned an opportunity for Sampras to add to his glittering resume into his most one-sided defeat ever in a Grand Slam final. It was only the third loss in 16 major finals for Sampras, the first two coming in four-set defeats to Stefan Edberg here in 1992 and to Andre Agassi at the 1995 Australian Open.
"It reminded me of when I was 19 years old and steamrolled over Andre," the fourth-seeded Sampras said, recalling his victory here over Agassi in their historic 1990 final. "He hardly missed."
With his victory, the sixth-seeded Safin became the first Russian player to win the Open and only the second to win a Grand Slam event. He is also the youngest player since Sampras to win the Open. It was Safin's fourth victory this year and will move him up to No. 3 in the world rankings.
"There is different levels how much you want," said Safin, who began his pro career in 1996 and was ranked 25th at the end of last year. "For me, it's one level I definitely want. If I have this opportunity, I will do this. Everybody has an opportunity to be on top. If you want, you can be there. I want [to be there]."
Safin's performance here during the past two weeks, which included five-set victories in the second and third rounds, was far different from how he started the year in Grand Slam events.
In the Australian Open, Safin lost a first-round match and was later accused of tanking a 6-1 third set after reportedly catching one of his opponent's serves. He was fined $2,000, the first player to be fined for that type of offense at a major in a decade.
"I make history," he said.
Safin contemplated quitting the game during a tournament in California in March, when he lost 6-0 in the second set of a best-of-three, second-round match. But after changing coaches, Safin began to show improvement, winning tournaments in Barcelona, Mallorca and Toronto, where he beat Sampras in the quarterfinals of the Canadian Open.
"Now I'm thinking about being No. 1 in the world," he said.
Considering what he did to Sampras, it doesn't seem that far-fetched a notion. The statistics from yesterday's match were not nearly as overwhelming as Safin's performance, which included a devastating combination of touch, power and control, both of his shots and his emotions.
That has been the biggest change in Safin's game. A player known to break rackets - he reportedly cracked four dozen last year alone - Safin barely seemed to break a sweat against Sampras. Even when he chased down drop shots to make seemingly impossible returns, it looked effortless.
"It hasn't happened to me that often that I've got kind [of] carved like wax, but it's happened," said Sampras, who received a consolation prize of $400,000 and a silver plate. "I knew he was going to play well, but I didn't think he was going to play that well that long. I figured he would get a bit nervous."
It didn't happen until the last couple of games. The first two break points against Safin in the final game passed without incident, and he celebrated by raising his arms and kneeling to kiss the court. As has become custom, Safin ran into the stands to celebrate with his friends.
Given the fact that Safin even brought out champagne to celebrate his first major with the media, it would obviously be a pretty big party. It was announced last night that Safin will host a luncheon and photo session today at the Russian Tea Room. That's if the guest of honor makes it.
Safin was asked if he was going to get drunk last night.
"Guys, what do you want me to say in the press?" he asked with a smile. "Between us, I hope so. It's for free. If you want also, it's for free."