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.
When we speak of greatness, we speak of Roger Federer, who epitomises graceful perfection. From the groundstrokes to the bandanna, this man is pure class. He is one of those rare few whom crowds love to love. A family man, a champion, a human, and a living legend: Roger Federer.
We speak of Rafael Nadal, who is a true athlete. Dedication and determination, grit and power, hard work and perseverance, sacrifices and defying the odds; Nadal has done it all, and then some. There are players who we love to hate, just because they’re that good. Nadal, arguably, is one of them. We love to take him down, with his superstitions and wedges, but ultimately, there is no one who cannot respect Rafa.
We mention Djokovic in the same breath, albeit grudgingly so. This is Federer and Nadal’s time, we protest. We cannot have a pretender here. There is no place for a third wheel in the men’s game. Agassi-Sampras, Connors-McEnroe, Becker-Edberg, Borg-Connors. How can there be a trifecta? And yet, grudgingly, we accede. Djoker is a funny man. Equal parts comedy and seriousness, this man has clawed his way into record books, and calmly stands up there with the best, letting us know there is a lot more to come.
There was Bjorn Borg, who swatted opponents like flies and there was Johnny McEnroe, whose rage was equalled only by his on court brilliance. There was Goran Ivanisevic and his erraticism, but the knowledge that on a bad day he would break racquets, and on a good day, he was undefeatable. There was Patrick Rafter with his looks and charm, Boris Becker with his prodigious talent, and Andre Agassi with bad hair days and brutal honesty.
And then, there’s Marat Safin.
If there was one man who wasn’t all of this, it was Marat Safin. Roger Federer’s unnatural reign of superiority which began with Wimbledon 2003 and lasted until 2007’s US Open saw only two blemishes (apart from the French Open) in Andy Roddick and Marat Safin. The way in which Marat demolished Federer left a lot of us reeling, not least Federer himself. Just like Sampras feared one Petr Korda, Federer knew that this was one man who, on his day, was simply undefeatable.
Although shocked, the world was not surprised. When the nineteen year old defeated Pete Sampras in straight sets at Flushing Meadows, we all thought we had witnessed the start of a whole new era of domination. Although we would see one, it would not have Safin’s name on it. And yet, as we do with so many others, no one has been able to write off Marat Safin. When they saw the way Sampras was left hanging out to dry, they couldn’t possibly have labelled Safin a fluke. That in itself speaks volumes of his greatness.
Few know that in 1998, just a year after turning pro, Safin defeated Agassi and more impressively, Gustavo Kuerten in his own backyard, Roland Garros. Although injuries did hamper his career significantly, we all know that this wasn’t the reason for lack of silverware.
Safin’s goodbyes may not have been as prolonged as those of the Rolling Stones, who embarked on a so-called farewell tour as long ago as 1971, but ever since that first appearance of the year in Perth, Safin has been waving nostalgically to crowds. The long goodbye, however, has finally come to an end for a man who, in the public eye at least, is just as much about rock ‘n’ roll as about serve and volley.
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 off court.
“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”.
Safin was moody, lazy and whimsical. His willpower, or the lack of it, is generally regarded as the reason for his failure. What failure? Marat Safin belongs to that extremely rare set of people who possessed something none of us could ever have, and yet, it was all but a small part of him. So he didn’t win the accolades, and he will never be mentioned as one of the legends of the game. He won hearts, he won people, and occasionally, when he felt like it, he won matches.
Crowds would never know what to expect of him. They didn’t know whether to love him or hate him, and rightfully so. At 15-40 Safin could make a shot that would make even the umpire lose his breath. He would then take his gold chain in his mouth, a flash of pride and nonchalance in his eyes, and slowly shuffle his 6’4” frame to be in position for the next point. Barely fifteen minutes later, could Safin turn into a petulant baby, devoid of confidence and looking utterly lost. He would break racquets and hurl insults and be held in contempt of court.
He was a funny man. Post-match interviews and mid-match antiques were some things we would never want to miss. How about the 2005 Australian Open Final, when Leyton Hewitt, driven by his home faithful, was all over Safin? At one point, Marat Safin literally had no answer to the Aussie’s supremacy. He just looked up at the sky, utter helplessness writ on his face, and yelled,
“What can I do?”
The crowd laughed, sympathising with him, thinking they already knew the outcome to that match. Safin won that final, to win his second and last Grand Slam title.
For all his rage and tantrums, Safin was a gentleman. When he once mishit a ball that hit an aged lady umpire, there was profuse apology on his face and lips. He jogged up to the lady, kissed her on the cheek, and that was that. The smile on her face was more than enough to describe the simplicity and beauty of that moment.
Marat Safin once famously said, on being asked if his mother was also at Melbourne along with his sister (who was taking part in the Women’s Draw)
“No, she’s not. Two women are too much for me.”
Well he is the same guy who became protective when his sister Dinara Safina was criticised and said
“Who cares? I mean, she’s No. 1 in the world. I have to protect my sister. The poor girl, she’s trying her best. She’s doing really well. She gets the attention, but not the kind of attention that a person deserves, especially when you’re No. 1 in the world.”
In his mercurial career, in a sort of retaliation, he suffered the short and unpredictable players. The Swede Magnus Norman made him look foolish 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 semi-final 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.
He’s the last romantic in a sport producing more and more great champions, but less and less authentic characters, capable of transporting fans and the crowd into a world of blood and magic, honour and pride.
There is a reason why he was inducted into the hall of fame .He’s been 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.
In his induction speech, he touched an issue of Tennis being over professional and he said,
“I miss my generation that I started with. It was the last generation where we went out together and spent a lot of time together. It was rock and roll for everybody, Patrick Rafter, Gustavo Kuerten, Nicolas Lapentti, Mark Philippoussis… We could go out the night before and play matches the next day. We were like a family. Now it’s almost too professional. The kids are getting too serious!”
On 11/11 of 2009, Marat Safin officially retired from the game. We won’t see his name on record books or a List of top tennis players, and we don’t need to. For some players are loved because of who they are, and not what they’ve done.
Thank you, Marat Safin.