The Number Ones

Marat Safin: The Man Of Fire

The 15-time tour-level titlist was a draw for his powerful game and memorable mannerisms
August 20, 2020
Marat Safin won seven of his 15 ATP Tour titles in 2000, the year he first rose to No. 1 in the PIF ATP Rankings.
Holde Schneider/Bongarts/Getty Images
Marat Safin won seven of his 15 ATP Tour titles in 2000, the year he first rose to No. 1 in the PIF ATP Rankings. By Andrew Eichenholz

As a part of a series highlighting all players to reach World No. 1, looks back on the career of Marat Safin.View Full List

First week at No. 1: 20 November 2000
Total weeks at No. 1: 9

At World No. 1
Safin was No. 35 in the PIF ATP Rankings in April 2000. But the Russian used a strong push towards the end of the season to reach World No. 1 for the first time on 20 November 2000. At 20 years, 10 months, he remains the second-youngest player to reach the top spot.

“For me it was very strange in my experience reaching No. 1 and being No. 1. I wasn’t ready for that because I couldn’t imagine just a few months earlier that I’d have the chance to become No. 1 in the world. I was Top 50, dropping, playing very badly,” Safin told “I underestimated myself… I didn’t believe in myself and I was seeing myself weaker than others, which is unbelievable. Now I can understand tennis better.”

The charismatic and fiery right-hander led the ATP Tour with seven titles that year, including his maiden Grand Slam triumph at the US Open. He reached the pinnacle emphatically by winning the Rolex Paris Masters. Safin was the first player younger than 21 to win at least seven tour-level trophies in a season since Mats Wilander in 1983. With one more win at the Tennis Masters Cup [now named Nitto ATP Finals], Safin would have finished year-end No. 1, falling just short of Gustavo Kuerten. Safin spent three stints — with the final one ending in April 2001 — at top spot lasting a combined nine weeks.

Additionally, his sister, Dinara, climbed to the top of the WTA Rankings on 20 April 2009, marking the only time in history that a brother and sister have reached the summit of the sport.

Grand Slam Highlights
Safin only made one quarter-final in his first nine Grand Slam appearances. But the 20-year-old broke through in a major way at the 2000 US Open.

After battling past Gianluca Pozzi and Sebastien Grosjean in five-setters in the second and third rounds, respectively, Safin found the level that showed his incredibly high ceiling. In the final, the Russian blasted through Pete Sampras, then a four-time US Open champion, in straight sets. Sampras had won eight consecutive Slam finals he played, but Safin did not lose serve and he broke the American four times in a 98-minute blitz.

“Whatever I tried, he had the answers,” Sampras said. “With his game, as big as he hits the ball, when he's on, he's very, very tough to beat.”

The 6’4” righty, who remains the tallest World No. 1 in history, reached the Australian Open final in 2002 and 2004, but he did not lift another major trophy until returning to Melbourne in 2005, when he lost only three games against a 17-year-old Novak Djokovic in the first round, squeaked past top seed Roger Federer in a four-hour, 28-minute semi-final and rallied past Lleyton Hewitt for the trophy. That was Safin’s final Slam triumph.

Nitto ATP Finals Highlights
Safin competed in the Tennis Masters Cup, which has since been renamed the Nitto ATP Finals, three times (2000, 2002, 2004). His best performance came in Lisbon in 2000, when he reached the semi-finals with a 2-1 round-robin record.

Had Safin gone 3-0 in round-robin play or defeated Andre Agassi in the semi-finals, the Russian would have finished year-end No. 1. Instead, Agassi beat Safin 6-3, 6-3 to reach the final and Kuerten completed the season with 75 more points.

Another standout moment for Safin at the season finale came in Houston in 2004, when he played a 38-point tie-break against Roger Federer, who won the match 6-3, 7-6(18). That remains tied for the longest tour-level tie-break.

ATP Masters 1000 Highlights
The powerful Safin won five Masters 1000 titles in his career, with the last four of those crowns coming indoors. His first victory at the elite level came in 2000 at the Rogers Cup.

The Russian’s greatest Masters 1000 hunting ground was the Rolex Paris Masters, where his overwhelming game thrived. Safin won 23 of his first 25 matches in Paris, making the 1999 final, in which he lost to World No. 1 Agassi as a 20-year-old.

The next year, Safin won a thrilling final against fellow big-hitter Mark Philippoussis 3-6, 7-6(7), 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(8). Safin, who also lifted the Paris trophy in 2002 and 2004, completed his career at the Masters 1000. He retired in 2009 after losing a three-setter against Juan Martin del Potro in the second round.

Biggest Rivalries
Marat Safin was born 13 months earlier than Lleyton Hewitt. Although the two could not be more different — in game or personality — they followed similar paths to the top of the game. Almost exactly one year after Safin became the youngest World No. 1 in history, Hewitt did the same.

“Marat is a lot more powerful. Lleyton has the quickness and the heart” Sampras said after the 2000 US Open final. “It's two contrasting personalities and styles. But it will be an interesting match if those guys ever play.”

Safin and Hewitt finished their ATP Head2Head rivalry tied 7-7, with two of those matches coming in individual tournament finals (they also played in the final of the World Team Cup). Safin won on both occasions, defeating his Aussie rival at the 2002 Rolex Paris Masters and the 2005 Australian Open.

Safin told that one player who gave him fits was Fabrice Santoro, who won seven of their nine meetings.

“He played ugly the first time I saw him [at 1999 Washington]. I walked on the court and he toyed with me,” Safin said. “He got into my mind and throughout my career I was going on court knowing he knew where I was going to play. I got paranoia playing against him.”

Overall Match Win-Loss Record: 422-267
Overall Titles/Finals Record: 15-12

Safin did not dominate the ATP Tour as some thought he could with his powerful game, but he will go down as one of his generation’s most memorable players. In terms of his tennis, the Russian was capable of hitting a winner from virtually any spot on the court with any shot.

He was able to reverse a point’s momentum with one swing of his racquet, especially using his two-handed backhand. Safin was 6’4”, but he moved well enough to give himself time to unleash groundstrokes that pushed virtually any opponent back. The righty rarely swung out of his sneakers, utilising clean technique to get the most out of his game. Safin’s service stats didn’t come near measuring up against the likes of John Isner or Ivo Karlovic. But when the Russian was serving well, he put pressure on opponents, giving them few looks at returning aggressively.

Nobody will soon forget Safin’s behaviour on court, either. There was no fire and ice with Safin; it was always fire. He brought it with his blazing game, and complemented it with his fiery personality. After his career, the Russian admitted to breaking 1,055 racquets - his racquet sponsor had kept count! But nobody could take their eyes off him, making Safin a must-watch player even as his PIF ATP Ranking slipped towards the end of his career. In 2020, he returned to the sport to inspire Daniil Medvedev and Karen Khachanov as captain of Russia at the inaugural ATP Cup.

Memorable Moment
The 2000 Paris final was the culmination of Safin’s rise. The 20-year-old proved against Philippoussis in the final that he not only had the talent to beat the best in the game, but the will to battle through adversity in the biggest moments.

Safin left everything on the court — including blood, from diving for a volley — to emerge victorious after three hours and 29 minutes. The fifth-set tie-break was a classic, as Safin, sporting a bandage over his right eyebrow, triumphed when Philippoussis mis-hit a final forehand. When the next PIF ATP Rankings came out, Safin became the youngest World No. 1 in history, with Hewitt taking that record at 20 years, nine months the following year.

Yevgeny Kafelnikov on Safin
“Marat’s game was unlimited. I think everyone will tell you the same thing, that Marat’s game was very flashy and his game was very unlimited. He could have done a lot better than he has achieved, I think.”

Jimmy Connors on Safin
“He was emotional, played with passion. That is what drew me to him. Colourful, yes. Charismatic, yes. Controversial, yes. Great tennis player, no doubt. All reasons why when Marat took the court, you wanted to have the best seat in the house, never knowing what you were going to get. The tennis you expected. Everything else was a bonus. I for one loved the show.”

Safin On Being Inducted Into The International Tennis Hall Of Fame
“We had ups and downs, we cried, we broke racquets, we shouted some words, we threw the balls out of the court, we insulted the referees, only sometimes,” Safin said, cracking a laugh. “But this is a part of our life. I'm just so pleased to be part of it. It's a huge honour to be inducted and be part of history.”

Broadcaster/Journalist Graeme Agars
When Marat Safin was in full flight on the tennis court, he was a sight to behold. Tall, powerful and aggressive, he could make any player look ordinary as he did when he straight-setted the great Pete Sampras in the 2000 US Open final.

Unfortunately for the Russian, and fortunately for the rest of the players, he was not known for consistency of performance. One day unbeatable, the next day a racquet-tossing bundle of frustration as things didn’t go his way. Either way there was rarely a dull moment when he was in action.

The mercurial Russian holds some unique distinctions. Standing an impressive 6’4”, he is the tallest player to have ever achieved the No. 1 ranking and along with WTA No. 1 Dinara Safin, is half of the only brother and sister act to hold the top ranking in both men’s and women’s tennis.

After tennis he was elected to the Russian Parliament and served at both the Russian Tennis Federation and the Russian Olympic Committee. In 2016 he became the first Russian to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

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