NEW YORK (Reuters) - When Marat Safin destroyed Pete Sampras to win the U.S. Open title in 2000, it seemed the world order was about to change.
Sampras, who had just won his 13th grand-slam title, was made to look old by the big, strong Russian, in one of the most impressive performances in recent Flushing Meadows history.
Since then, despite a stunning 2005 victory at the Australian Open, Safin has become one of the biggest enigmas in world sport, brilliant on his day but susceptible to mental let-downs and struck by injuries each time it seemed he was about to establish himself again.
Eight years on and a relative veteran at 28, Safin reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon this year and believes he is finally clear of the knee injury that hampered him after that 2005 win in Melbourne.
“The last time I played the U.S. Open normal was back in 2001, when I got to the semi-finals, probably, it was so long ago,” former world number one Safin told Reuters in an interview.
”Every time I started to play well I was getting injured, even when I was number one, I got injured with the rib, I couldn’t play for two months and my ranking dropped and I lost confidence.
“But I am getting back again, the results will come eventually. The ranking doesn’t really matter, if you get the results it will come back.”
Now ranked 44, Safin will be unseeded in New York next week but none of the top players will want to face him early on, especially Novak Djokovic, who was beaten by the Russian in round two at Wimbledon.
Having been ranked as low as 90th in March, Safin is on the up again.
Much of the credit, Safin said, should go to his coach, Hernan Gumy.
“It’s been just over one year for us now, and I am pretty satisfied,” Safin said.
”I am a little old to do certain things. Over the years it gets tougher and tougher to play well, especially when you compare yourself with the years before.
“He understands, he has a lot of patience and is the ideal person to travel with, which is very important. I am not under any pressure.”
Safin said he had been wary about moving to his backhand side until Gumy took over.
”The knee was difficult and I was risking a little too much,“ he said. ”That’s why my ranking dropped because without confidence you cannot make any more winners from the back of the court.
“All of a sudden the pain was gone and I could start at least to work on the movement, I started to cover the court better, doing more work in the gym.”
Nothing is smooth sailing where Safin is concerned, though. After early defeats in the Masters Series events in Toronto and Cincinnati last month, Safin reached the quarter-finals in Los Angeles but then pulled out of Washington with a stiff neck last week.
“It should be okay. I just need three or four days’ rest,” he said.
Editing by Clare Fallon