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Open-and-shut case

The men's final is a blowout, but it is Marat Safin who does the dominating.

All week when Marat Safin called to get a ride to the National Tennis Center, U.S. Open officials repeatedly acted like they didn't know him. Two days ago he had to call three times before someone realized he was a main-draw player.

Sunday, there was no mistaking him. He was the 20-year-old Russian holding the silver champion's trophy, the one who handed Pete Sampras his lunch 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in one of the most dominating men's final-round performances in tournament history.

So, get it right. It's Marat Safin (ma-RAT saf-in). And if his play during the past two weeks is any indication of his readiness to become a consistent elite tennis player, you're going to be saying his name again and again.

With his victory, the first Grand Slam triumph of his career, he will maintain his fourth-place spot in the newest ATP Tour Champions Race standings released today. He will, however, leave Flushing Meadows a lot richer, after pocketing the $800,000 winner's check.

"The way he played today and played these two weeks, he can be No. 1 for many, many years," Sampras said. "Because of his game, he can play well on clay. Obviously on fast, hard courts. Grass he can do pretty well on. I mean, he can really be dominant because of his power."

It was poetic that Safin, 20, won his first Slam title here and did it against Sampras. It was 10 years ago that Sampras, almost the same age as Safin, won his first major here.

"I give him all the credit in the world. Everything I tried, he had an answer to," said Sampras, who won the 1990 U.S. Open at 19. "He reminded me of when I came here and won for the first time, but he serves harder than I did at 19 and he's more of a complete player than I was then."

Safin, who hadn't made it past the fourth round of a Slam until this year, celebrated by dropping to his knees and kissing the Arthur Ashe Stadium court, then climbing into the stands to hug his small contingent of Russian supporters.

Asked on court if he had played a better match, Safin said: "No. Never in my life."

It was a win that no doubt surprised many in the crowd of 23,115, not to mention Sampras, 29, who has lost three Grand Slam finals in his life, the last coming five years ago at the Australian Open.

"It was weird at the (post-match) ceremony," Sampras said, "(because) I usually hold the big trophy."

The sixth-seeded Safin beat Sampras a few weeks ago in Toronto. But in their only other meeting, the quarterfinals of the 1998 event here, Sampras smoked him in straight sets.

This time Safin did not just get into a zone, he owned it. He painted lines, threaded the passing lanes and keep unforced errors to a minimum, hitting 12 in the match. Sampras had 10 in the first set alone.

Sampras, seeded fourth after missing last year's Open because of injuries, didn't have an off-day. He was sharp, ripping first serves, volleying with authority and using experience to his advantage.

But there might have been two people who could have beaten Safin on Sunday, and they probably would have had to play together to do it. Sampras said he felt helpless at times, no small admission from a 13-time Grand Slam champion and arguably the greatest of all-time.

"I mean, I was trying everything against Marat. I mean, trying to chip-and-charge; stay back a little bit. Whatever I tried, he had the answers," Sampras said. "You know, I wasn't on top of my game, but I think he had a lot to do with it. He returned my serve and passed me just about as well as anyone that's ever played me."

The service returns and passing shots ultimately are what decimated Sampras. After losing his service game four times on the way to the final, Sampras lost it just as many times against Safin, whose timing on returns was impeccable.

When Sampras charged the net, Safin never seemed fazed or rushed, anticipating Sampras' every move. He couldn't have placed his passing shots any better if he had dropped them on the other side of the net himself.

Asked during the trophy presentation how he was able to return Sampras' serve so well, Safin boyishly said: "You think I know?"

Later he explained: "I'm the guy from Russia who had very few people rooting for him. I had nothing to lose."

The only time Safin got shaky was when he served for the match at 5-3. Sampras twice had chances to win the game and serve to even things at 5, but Safin didn't crack. Finally, Safin nervously put away Sampras and the butterflies in his stomach with a backhand cross-court passing shot.

Asked afterward if he planned to drink himself silly in celebration, Safin playfully said: "You want me to say yes so you can put it in the press? Well, between you and me, I hope so."