ATP Tennis 360

October 14, 2009 7:35 PM

Thoughts from Shanghai

Safin and the handshaking
When you see Marat Safin walking with the shadows of his past glory beside him and with the end of his career approaching, playing against Mr Unstability Thomas Berdych you could expect everything but a straight match. The encounter filled up with the expectations. In the first set Safin dominated the match with 6 aces while Berdych was out-played and seemingly close to retirement. After that the Czech received treatment and finished to win the match. Safin refused to shake his adversary's hand. Later, in the press room, he confirmed once again his genuinity and spontaneity of tongue and mind, specular to his not-mediate, not-reflected tennis. ““Don't pretend that you are injured and then you start running around and start to hit winners and then all of a sudden you pull the hands up in the air after winning the match?...So then of course the guy will say 'No, I've been injured but then I felt a little bit better'.”
"Of course he will find 10,000 excuses. Still, it's not enough. You're playing or you're not playing”.

The mind goes to the frozen handshaking between Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe at the end of 1988 Us Open semifinal: certainly the two were never mistaken as British gentlemen. But they showed glimpses of genuine personality, also if, as Martin Amis once wrote, “personality” in tennis is too often synonymous with a “seven-letter epithet that begins with a and ends with e”.

The real question, now, is that: this simple act, sign of camaraderie, meant to testify the fair play, is become the showing, the parody of the fair play, of that really genuine spirit characterizing the “third time” in rugby. What should have been a feeling became a theatrical play. On the one side, you could see the mocking-bird of an exaggerated correctness, the ostentation of a sacrifice, the relinquishment of the natural, inner competitive instincts. An the vassal style handshakes too many times devoted to Roger Federer are there to demonstrate it. On the other, a frigid routine, a mechanical act that lost everything authentical. In an era of appearance and ephemeral celebrity, Marat Safin remains as an appreciable exception.

James Blake mistery
Entertaining and losing. James Blake's match against Rafa Nadal in Shanghai was similar to many other of his encounters when he surrendered to big stars. When he plays against Federer or the Mallorcan, he shows all his hybrid nature, of a 30-years-old promising youngster who doesn't want to be considered a savvy veteran. But he's deep, intelligent on and off court, the nearest to a philosopher you could meet in a tennis center. Yet, he hasn't hit his peak, in tennis and life. He could become an informed citizen, with an active role in the society, and a great player, even nowadays. Despite the Boris Becker theorem (you measure a tennis player's life in dog years) Blake is younger than his DoB. He changed his long-time coach and friend hoping to win his first Masters 1000 or reach a Grand Slam final. After his entertaining defeat against the Mallorcan champion, however, we can learn a lesson. He has an inner smile difficultly compatible with world-class tennis. His injuries, the death of his father made him a better and strongest man. His foundation for the research against cancer improved his altruistic spirit. He seems, in other words, too good-natured for harsh tennis matches. For him tennis is an important, but not dominant part of his identity; and sometimes it seems he tries not to hurt too much players considering success in sport as their principal reason of life.

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