Marat Safin had been one of the most prominent players of the new tennis wave carried by those born in 1980 or later who were taking over the ATP throne from the veterans at the turn of the millennium. The Russian had entered the Top 100 in June 1998 at the age of 18 and he claimed the maiden ATP title in Boston a year later.
The start of 2000 was not that good for the talented youngster from Moscow, losing four out of five matches in the first two months before taking his game to a higher level to claim no less than 73 wins from exactly 100 matches he played that year, including five ATP titles.
After conquering Barcelona and Mallorca, Marat lost an epic Hamburg final against Gustavo Kuerten in three hours and 52 minutes, losing his form in the next few tournaments before bouncing back in Toronto where he claimed the maiden Masters 1000 title.
In another tight final against Kuerten, Safin was defeated in the final set tie break in Indianapolis but he went all the way at the US Open to lift his first Grand Slam crown and become the youngest champion since Pete Sampras in 1990, also the third from the U20 category (John McEnroe and Sampras).
In the first five encounter, Marat had to give his best to emerge as a winner and reach the semis, scoring just one straight sets triumph and standing two points away from the defeat against Sebastien Grosjean in the third round.
The last year's finalist Todd Martin fell in the semis in three sets and Safin saved the best for the last, toppling Pete Sampras 6-4 6-3 6-3 in an hour and 38 minutes to become the first Russian winner in New York! The youngster showed no sign of nerves in his biggest match up to that point in a career, never losing his serve and converting four out of nine break points to control the scoreboard all the time against the legendary rival.
Sampras had 35 service winners but his initial shot was the only thing that worked for him, hitting more volley errors than winners and failing to keep the pace with his rival from the baseline. In fact, Marat created the biggest gap with his first initial shot, placing his serves beautifully and keeping the pressure on Pete with the first groundstroke that was much more effective than Sampras' serve&groundstroke combos.
There was nothing wrong with Pete's game in the opening six games of the match, dropping three points on serve before Safin drew first blood with a return winner in game seven that pushed him in front, holding after a deuce with a volley winner in game eight to move 5-3 up.
The Russian served for the set in game 10 and he brought the opener home with a service winner, losing just eight points on serve and hoping for more of the same in the rest of the match. Nothing changed in the second set as well, Marat lost just six points in four service games and Pete was unable to follow that pace despite three great holds to open the set.
Just like in the first set, the seventh game proved to be crucial as Marat created a break point with a backhand down the line winner and converting it with another great return for a 4-3. Safin held at 30 in the following game with an unreturned serve to confirm the break and he broke at 15 in game nine thanks to a double from Sampras to grab the second straight break and close the set in the best possible way.
Marat held at love at the start of the third set and he was all over his rival now, scoring his third straight break after a poor volley from Pete to forge the crucial lead. Marat cemented the advantage with a hold at 30 in game three and he had a chance to break the American again in the next game, only to be denied when Sampras fired a service winner.
The more experienced player stood no chance on the return in game five as well to fall 4-1 down and he had to play against two more break points in game six, losing the ground completely and drifting further and further away from the positive result.
He managed to repel them but it was Safin who served for the title in game nine, facing no break points so far in the encounter. Out of sudden, the nerves started to show up and Pete earned two break chances that could have kept him in the set despite a poor performance so far.
Nonetheless, Marat saved them with a drive volley winner and well-constructed attack and he had the match point up for grabs when Sampras sent a forehand long. A backhand cross court winner pushed Marat Safin over the top and he started a huge celebration of what had been only his fifth ATP title in a career so far.
In what seems unthinkable today, Marat played in Tashkent in the very next week, winning the title and becoming world number 1 by the end of the season after additional crowns in St. Petersburg and Paris. ALSO READ: Novak Djokovic joins Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal among the oldest..