ATP Tennis 360

November 12, 2009 6:29 AM

Game, set, career. Tribute to Marat Safin

The music by the Sigur Ros celebrated the career-ending of Marat Safin. His friends and colleagues went into the Paris-Bercy central court after he was defeated by Juan Martin Del Potro to make honour to one of the best entertainers and the greatest waster of their own talent ever seen with a racquet in hand, given that winning two Slams with his potential is even a slightly disappointing result. "I'm the demonstration that even geniuses can make mistakes" he once said.

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From now on, if we think about him, probably before his down the line backhand, the first image coming to our mind would be a Marat Safin half asleep on a bench in Melbourne after a brave night just before the Australian Open final he naturally lost, or better didn't effectively play, against a thanking Thomas Johansson.


Or, perhaps, we'll remember the 2004 Roland Garros. It was a gloomy day, Marat and Mantilla were incardinating into a battle forced to the fifth set. Then, suddenly, to celebrate a drop shot he hit for a winner, Marat pulled his shorts down. He hitched up his pants with a smile, soon disappearing when Carlos Bernardes, the chair umpire, assigned him a penalty point.


"Marat, what possessed you to pull your pants down?" they enquired him afterwards.


"It was a great point for me," Safin explained. "I felt like pulling my pants down. What's bad about it?"


In this schoolboy prank there's all Marat, the instinctive personality, the craziness, the good or bad frank genuineness, the not-reflexed mood, his acting before thinking to the consequences.


Safin is one of the most complicated and compelling athletes in sports, who broke more than 300 racquets, at last count, and an even more open book offcourt. "You can't fight your genes. I'm Russian, but I'm 100% Muslim. All the Muslim people are passionate, stubborn. We have hot blood" he once said.

Safin can't make up his mind, he's honest to a fault, and his last declarations about Andre Agassi's confessions shows it: "If he bribed, he shoud give back his cups" he said about that.

He's admired, sometimes envied for his mood, the circus of Safinettes surrounding him and his easy-going way of managing the professional part of being a professional athlete. But his  crowd-pleasing unpredictability and the intrigue of his wild moods swings hide a trouble: they give rise to early round exits. And forced fans to live an ethernal rollercoaster of disillusions and surprises.

But it wasn't always so. There was a time when this intimidating 6-foot-4 guy had a praiseworthy work ethic. It was a time when he had a dream, to be a tennis player, and gradually he posed in front of himself higher and higher goals to reach, harder and harder missions to accomplish.

Safin started playing tennis when he was 6. His father, Misha, directed a small tennis club in Moscow. His mother, Rausa Islanova, a tennis coach, pushed him and his sister, Dinara, onto the court. But Safin played for the Spartak Moscow youth soccer team and didn't want to hear about racquets and small yellow balls.

"Maybe I was unhappy, but I had no other choice," he confesses. "My mother said I would have more chances to become a tennis player than a football player".

He quickly outgrew the substandard facilities and equipment in Moscow. "It was really impossible to break through in Russia. We couldn't buy any balls. We really didn't have any courts, no rackets, nothing. And no people to practice with".

His family tried to guide him without making any pressure on him. "There were no way to emerge, nobody expected nothing from me. How could it be different" he confessed to Tom Perrotta in a long interview for "They watched Wimbledon probably for half an hour a day. How could have they thought someone would have played there?".

When he was 14, his parents solicited financial backing and sent him to a private tennis school in Valencia. Ambition, conscience of his talent, of his blessed physical structure and a stubborness capable to win homesickness and regrets. "It is for the opportunity to do something big," said Safin, who became fluent in Spanish in six months. "Why not do it? Because otherwise you might not have a chance".

In 1997, playing in the satellite and Futures circuit he became top-200. He started think he could do it, he could have made his dream true. He had the great fortune, but at the same time, the key-misfortune, to be excessively quick in reaching top-level successes. In 1997, then 17, thanks also to IMG that sponsored him for sometime, he put Andre Agassi and defending champion Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil. He won his first ATP title in 1999.

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The next millennium started with seven first round defeats out of his first nine tournaments, between tantrums and pulverized racquets until Flushing Meadows came. And his history, his career, his life changed forever. He outlasted Pete Sampras, felt the elation of being n.1 for 9 weeks,  became the youngest to end No. 2 since 19-year-old Boris Becker in 1986 and the first under 21 to win at least seven titles in a year since Mats Wilander won nine in '83. He was only a 20 years old guy with money, five cars (one was a Ferrari), a house in Valencia, and a question mark not erased: now that all his goals are reached, all his mission accomplished, what should have he done?

He answered conceding himself greater fun than before, surrendering to the girls' fascination: "I pay them to make them go out from my bed, not to make them have sex with me" once said with a glimpse of his frank tongue. He wasn't ready, and his liaison with Peter Lundgren, another viveur, helped him.

The Swede pushed Safin to commit himself to a regimented physical fitness and nutritional program, while convinced the Russian to hirea chiropractor to travel with him on tour. But his most important and lasting heritage is another. Lundgren got Safin to understand he needs to keep his emotions in check and convinced him that if he didn't try to get the most out of his enormous talent, he would have had major regrets.

Said Safin: "I've let my perfectionism go. I've learned to accept the losses. I've realized I can't waste any moment being unhappy. I want to play tennis until I can't. Why not enjoy it?"
In the next years, completing a 12 year career, Safin went into into a slow fall, burdened by fame, fortune, injuries and a lack of desire, although he has in his glass showcase 15 cups, out of 30 finals, and the great emotion to have gifted Russia the 2006 Davis Cup beating José Acasuso 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 in the 5th rubber.

In his mercurial career, in a sort of retaliation, he suffered the short and umpredictable players. The Swede Magnus Norman made him fool during a Roland Garros, the Magician Fabrice Santoro, arrived like him at the end of his career after playing 69 Slams, closed with a 7-2 record against Marat. He couldn't stand the lefty tricks of Fabrice, and often pursued him in the locker room shouting "Retire yourself, you're old!", but the two greatly estimate each other.


In Australia, where he had the harshest delusion, for his fans more than for him, he handed his passionate supporters the greatest performance, in the 2005 semifinal against Roger Federer, the player Marat admires most. The 9-7 in the fifth set remains one of the most epic moments this sport showed in the modern age, with the 1980 Borg-McEnroe tiebreak, the 2005 Rome Masters final between Nadal and Coria, the four tiebreaks between Agassi and Sampras and the 2008 Wimbledon final.

It was a match between two noises, the hard, dry sound coming out from Marat's racquet, like a door slammed, and a not-sound from Roger Federer, the stillness anticipating the storm, a ball even more penetrating and heavy. Curiosly, Roger was his last opponent on the Rod Laver Arena, this year, starting the moving farewell tour. In this last year Marat seemed finally relaxed, free from pressures, only caged in his auto-worn mask of performer and entertainer; a tour characterised by a series of skimmed victories. It seemed he wanted to say 'if I wanted, I could win', but finally leaved the success for players yet interested into the banal questions of titles, or year-end ranking.

Remembering matches like these, his incredible defeats, against Monfils in Miami, or against De Vliegen in Montecarlo from 6-0 3-1 up, and his bright victories and triumphs, the recent outpowering of Davydenko in Moscow, it remains a sort of rage. Rage for what he could have done if only he had had Nikolay Davydenko's mind and focus. But this possibility belongs to the world of unreal dreams, of a perfection impossible in this world.   

We can only cheer and appreciate a man who intentionally decided to consider his career not the most relevant part of his life, who once in Monte Carlo drove David Nalbandian to say before a match against him scheduled at 10 a.m.: "You can't make me play at the time when Marat goes to bed, it wouldn't be fair for him".

He's the last romantic in a sport producing more and more great champions, but less and less authentic characters, capable to transport fans and crowd into a world of blood and magic, honour and pride.

He's benn loved loved because he was intensely, genuinely, completely Marat even when he was on court, when he had to be Safin. He is admired because didn't sacrifice any part of his identity and personality, he didn't hide anything. Because, definitely, his tennis was the most faithful possible glass of his life and values.

After his match against Del Potro (it was their first meeting, in the final celebration they seemed good old friends), he said: "This is a day I will remember for longtime, this world openned me many doors, now I'm starting my new life thanks to it. And I hope to obtain from now on a tenth of what I've achieved as a tennis player. What will I do tonight? I don't know. My friend (on the stands) surely organised something. But no married couples". Applauses for a great man coherent to himself also in such a moment, a Technicolor champion who polarized crowds searching a player capable of prodding their sense of right and wrong.

The celebration finished. Everyone had in his heart a sort of personal soundtrack to cheer a man and a champion ending his career on the notes of the Sigur Ros.

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