Going into the 2000 US Open final, not many believed that Marat Safin had much of a chance against Pete Sampras. He was young, inexperienced, temperamental, while Sampras was gunning for his 14th slam and had won 8 straight slam finals. Safin had defeated Sampras only weeks before in Montreal, and just two ranking places separated the two. But it was still a mismatch.
And thatâ€™s why what Safin achieved on the 11th September 2000 was so incredible. Rather than succumbing to the pressure and being flattened by Sampras like so many great champions before him, he rose to the occassion and produced one of, if not the greatest performance of his career. And indeed one of the greatest performances ever. While his serving was exemplary and his groundstrokes were faultless brilliance, what made this performance and the result so stunning was the way in which he dealt with one of the greatest serves in tennis history. It wasnâ€™t the case of him just blocking it back, he didnâ€™t even try to neutralize it. Instead, he stood his ground, faced it head-on, and crushed return after return without any fear or remorse. Regardless of whether it was a first or second serve, 130mph or 100mph, every serve was dealt with in the same, bone-crunching fashion. Sampras later said; “He passed and returned my serve better than anyone Iâ€™ve ever played.” And he was damn right.
Safin went on to finish the year with six other titles and a brief stint at number one to accompany his first Grand Slam title. Many felt that the 2000 US Open was Safinâ€™s breakthrough tournament, his coming-out year, and that he would win many, many more Grand Slams. But it didnâ€™t happen. After a slew of injuries, years of indifference and a lack of work ethic, he retired in 2009 with only one additional Grand Slam -- the 2005 Australian Open. He is widely seen as a chronic underachiever, and many believe that had he put more effort into his career he could have become one of Federerâ€™s prime rivals, pipping him to the post in one or two more. And while Safinâ€™s career certainly serves as a reminder that talent can only take you so far in tennis, in the two slams that he did win he produced two of the greatest tennis matches we have ever seen. Canâ€™t argue with that.
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