Marat Safin was one of the most prominent players of the new generation born in 1980 or later who took over the ATP throne from the veterans at the turn of the millennium. The Russian cracked the top-100 in June 1998 at 18 and claimed the maiden ATP title in Boston a year later, setting eyes on big goals in 2000.
The beginning of the season was not that good for the talented Moscovian youngster, losing four out of five matches in the first two months before taking his game to a higher level. Marat secured no less than 73 wins from exactly 100 encounters that year, including five ATP titles under his tally!
After conquering Barcelona and Mallorca, Marat lost an epic Hamburg final against Gustavo Kuerten in three hours and 52 minutes, struggling to get back into the winning rhythm in the next couple of tournaments before bouncing back in Toronto where he claimed the maiden Masters 1000 title.
In another tight final against Kuerten, Safin missed the opportunity to lift the trophy in the deciding tie break in Indianapolis before going all the way at the US Open to lift his first Major crown and become the youngest champion in New York since Pete Sampras in 1990, also the third from the U20 category after John McEnroe and Sampras.
In the first five encounters, Marat had to give his best to 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 on September 10 to become the first Russian winner in New York!
The youngster showed no sign of nerves in the most significant match in a career up to that point, never losing serve and converting four out of nine break chances to control the scoreboard against the legendary rival. Sampras had 35 service winners and his initial shot was the only positive element in his game on that day, hitting more volley errors than winners and failing to keep the pace with his rival from the baseline.
Marat created the most significant gap with his initial shot, placing his serves superbly 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, 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 to move 5-3 up.
The Russian served for the set in game ten and brought the opener home with a service winner, losing eight points on serve and hoping for more of the same in the rest of the match after a massive confidence boost.
In 2000, Marat Safin overpowered Pete Sampras to reign in New York.
Nothing changed in the second set, as Marat lost six points in four service games, mounting the pressure on Pete who couldn't endure it despite three great holds to open the set.
Like in the opener, the seventh game proved crucial after Marat created a break chance with a backhand down the line winner, seizing it with another excellent return for a 4-3 advantage. Safin held at 30 in the next game with an unreturned serve to cement the break, delivering a break at 15 in game nine thanks to a double from Sampras to grab the set in the best possible way and move closer to the finish line.
Marat held at love at the beginning of the third set and was all over his rival now, delivering the third straight break after a weak volley from Pete to forge the crucial lead. The Russian moved further in front with a hold at 30 in game three, earning the opportunity to break the American again a few minutes later, denied when Sampras fired a service winner to avoid a complete disaster.
The more experienced player stood no chance on the return in game five to find himself 4-1 down, having to play against two more break points in the next one after losing ground and drifting further away from the positive result.
Sampras managed to repel them but it was Safin who served for the title at 5-3, facing no challenges on serve 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 up to that point.
Nonetheless, Marat saved them with a drive volley winner and a well-constructed attack, creating the first match point when Sampras sprayed a forehand error. A backhand crosscourt winner pushed Marat Safin over the top, starting to celebrate what was only his fifth ATP title in a career.
In what seems unthinkable today, Marat played in Tashkent a week later, winning the title and becoming world no. 1 by the end of the season after going all the way in St. Petersburg and Paris.