It was an evening when the champagne and vodka flowed with joyous abandon and Marat Safin's smile was as wide as the Volga. This was 2000 and the young Russian had just won his first grand slam title as a 20-year-old, demolishing Pete Sampras in the American's own backyard. His prospects appeared as dazzling as the Manhattan skyline and a championship pedigree assured.
Yet three years later he was missing at Flushing Meadows, as he had been for the 2003 French Open and Wimbledon. A wrist injury had reduced this towering bear of a man to a frustrated bit player and he entered this year's Australian Open almost forgotten, troubled and more than a little insecure.
Last year he had been forced to watch the rise of Andy Roddick, Roger Federer and Juan Carlos Ferrero as a spectator while wondering, when he next stepped out on court, what would happen. "I was a little bit scared to come back on the tour," he said. "When you do not play for a long time you lose confidence. I was afraid I would not be able to read the game, that all the players would have improved and that everything would be that little bit faster than it was before."
Now it is his opponents who are beginning to worry, with Safin one match away from a possible quarter-final against Roddick next week. After four-set wins over Brian Vahaly of the United States and Jarkko Nieminen of Finland, Safin announced his re-arrival yesterday with a victory over Todd Martin, the American possessed of a game to test the patience of Job.
Martin's career is littered with more five-set set matches than most - "Well, I guess I'm very evenly matched with everybody" - and this was another DeMille epic, lasting three hours 25 minutes. It ended when Safin thundered a backhand service return beyond Martin's groping lunge for a 7-5, 1-6, 4-6, 6-0, 7-5 win.
Safin's concentration has rarely been his strong suit and, when he lost the third set, the exit door was on its hinges. He smashed a ball into the crowd and received a warning; he made as if to eat his racket handle; and he slumped in his chair with his head between his knees as if despair had thumped him in the back and was refusing to let him rise.
"What really impressed me was that he hung in there after having the tide turn on him. Geez, he's not short on talent and he out-fired me in those last two sets," said Martin, a pro for 14 years who, with his grizzled hair, looks every day of his 33 years, going on 60. But he remains a fierce competitor.
Safin should have won the title here two years ago, losing the final to Sweden's Thomas Johansson after a performance that was as wide and wayward as his homeland. The year he won the US Open he claimed seven titles; since then he has won only three more, the last being the Paris Indoor Open in 2002. For a player of such obvious talent it is dismal.
Aside from any injuries, his temperament has been his Achilles heel. His serve is huge, and his ground strokes, particularly the two-handed backhand, are awesome. And all are matched with massive physique - 6ft 4in and 88kg (13st 12lb). If this was not enough, Safin is now beginning to learn to love the net.
"He's such a good athlete and athleticism is most effective forward in the court," said Martin, a serve-and-volleyer himself. "Having an all-court game, like Roger Federer, is the most important step towards becoming the best player you can be. For Roger it's pretty natural but Marat is moving in that direction."
There is no doubt that Safin should be in the world's top five - he was briefly No1 in 2000 - and not be left stranded as a one-slam wonder. Such are his power and talent that he can crush anybody. If he were American, and the possessor of an implacable self-belief such as Andre Agassi or Roddick, he might have swept everything before him. But there is a huge chunk of self-doubt, coupled with an almost wilful self-destruct button. The old Marat Safin might have imploded yesterday; against Martin there were encouraging signs of development. He next plays James Blake, one of four Americans left in the top half of the draw, including Agassi, Roddick and Robby Ginepri. Agassi, the title holder for three of the last four years, flicked aside Sweden's Thomas Enqvist in straight sets and Roddick's 6-2, 6-0, 6-2 third-round win over his fellow American Taylor Dent bordered on the cruel.
The most wasted of all days is one without laughter....
Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there
Enjoy This Moment!!
HEALTH and HAPPINESS to EVERYONE