Safin misses Hewitt's vital ingredient of success

"If I was the type of person who had tennis, tennis, tennis all the time and I went to bed and ended up dreaming about tennis, I would go nuts." — Pic. AFP-

RUSSIAN Davis Cupper and 2000 U.S. Open champion Marat Safin believes "mental toughness" is keeping Lleyton Hewitt ranked as world number one at his expense.

RUSSIAN Davis Cupper and 2000 U.S. Open champion Marat Safin believes "mental toughness" is keeping Lleyton Hewitt ranked as world number one at his expense.

Safin may be five inches taller and 45 pounds heavier but he envies the Wimbledon champion's ability to concentrate fully for every second of a match.

"Lleyton has a different personality and is a different person," Safin said. "I can't have his focus. He cannot be me and I cannot be him. He has something on court I don't have and I have things that he doesn't have.

"I have everything — the strokes, the tennis, the fitness, but focus is what's missing. That's why he was number one last year and I was number three."

With a huge serve, big groundstrokes and a competent volley, the physically imposing Russian is unquestionably one of the most talented players in the sport.

But since winning the U.S. Open as a 20-year-old over Pete Sampras, Safin has been extremely inconsistent.

On the other hand, after he won the U.S. Open in 2001, Hewitt has set the mark for consistency, finishing the last two years as the top-ranked player and winning the 2002 Wimbledon. Safin has yet to reach the year-end top spot.

"Lleyton's a big figher," Safin said. "He's very focussed and wills his way to win. He just waits and waits for you to have that 10-15 minute lapse of concentration and then he's on you and all of a sudden the match is over."

In 2000, Safin tried his best to become the year-end number one, playing tournament after tournament in the autumn and ended up just short, as Gustavo Kuerten won the ATP Championships and edged him.

Safin would rather not discuss the topic of the number one ranking. "It's too much pressure," he said. "You have to think match by match and moment by moment or it drives you to distraction. I'm tired of all the talk about it. Everyone is obsessed with it."

Even though he failed to win a Grand Slam last year, Safin did grab the Tennis Masters Series Paris title and led his country to its first Davis Cup title, winning both his singles matches in a 3-2 victory over France.

While Safin considers that to be one of the great moments of his career, the long season exhausted him. "You don't finish until the second week in December and then you only have two weeks of vacation," he said.

"In sports like soccer or American football, you have a few months off and another month of pre-season. It takes a lot out of you. It's hard to keep your mind on tennis all the time."

Safin injured his shoulder in Australia in January and was forced to pull out of the third round of the Australian Open, where he had reached the final in 2002.

The Russian took three weeks off and returned in Rotterdam, where he lost to countryman Yevgeny Kafelnikov. The next week in Dubai, he fell to Tommy Robredo of Spain.

Now, his confidence is shaky at best. "When you've missed time with injuries your confidence goes up and down," he said.

However, Safin, currently No. 8 in the world, is trying his best to become more focussed for every match.

"Mentally it's a question of being motivated," he said. "Everyone likes to play against the big names and when I play those guys I can play great, but when I play a guy ranked 40 to 50 it's very tough. I find something missing in my motivation. I'm working on that."

Safin has frequently been accused of enjoying the nightlife too much and not making the most of his talent.

But the Russian says that he simply does not have the mental makeup of a gym addict. "If I was the type of person who had tennis, tennis, tennis all the time and I went to bed and ended up dreaming about tennis, I would go nuts," he said.

"I understand that tennis is my job and I try to do it very well, but I need to have a private life, just like everyone else. It's not a bad thing. Everyone likes to have fun."