Top O' the World

updated 09/25/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/25/2000 01:00AM

Even at the tender age of 17, budding Russian tennis star Marat Safin was as famous for his temper as his talent. "He had taken to breaking rackets left, right and center," recalls umpire Sergei Gerasimov. "You'd hear him as he stomped around on the court telling himself off, saying, 'Did you come here to play or what? Just show me what you can do!' "

At the title match of the U.S. Open on Sept. 10, Safin, now all of 20, finally did just that. It took the lean 6'4" right-hander and his 130-mph serve only 98 minutes to steamroll to a straight-set victory over defending champ Pete Sampras, 29. "I think he's finally growing into his game," says tennis analyst Mary Carillo of Safin, who considered retiring earlier this year after several dismal outings. "Now he knows how to fight."

For a long time it looked as if some of Safin's biggest struggles were with his coaches—starting with his mother, Rauza Islanova, now 52, who introduced him to the sport at age 6 at the municipal Moscow club managed by his father, Misha, also 52. "I wanted to play soccer," admits Safin. "But I wasn't so good." Even after moving to Valencia, Spain, at 14 to take advantage of better training opportunities, Safin often seemed at sea. "His game was always extraordinary," says Rafael Mensua, his coach until April. "But he wasn't sure that he wanted to be at the top of his profession."

Safin celebrated his arrival at the summit by calling his girlfriend in Valencia, phys-ed teacher Silvia Torrens Valero, 22. Twenty-seven hours after his Open victory, he left for a tournament in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, after which he'll be off to represent Russia in the Olympics. And then, finally, the self-described "romantic" has plans for some mixed doubles. "I want to go to the mountains," he says, "and disconnect all the mobile phones."

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