Marat Safin in the service of Putin
By Jean-Christophe Collin in Moscow
In November 2009, Marat Safin put away his racquets. Then the Gatsby of world tennis threw himself into politics. Now here he is, a deputy under the colours of United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s party. The choice was surprising. He explains it.
He greeted the young waitress, who didn’t resist, and sat down, jaws clenched. Lowered his eyes. "I'm sorry, I completely forgot". Despite his lateness, I was relieved: Russian parliament, where he has sat since December 2011, hasn’t changed Marat Safin after all. He remains the elegant, bright, casual guy that top-level sport does not produce enough of. Nevertheless, for the next hour, he will to strive to demonstrate to the contrary, that he has become precisely someone else. To tell us about his new life, his responsibilities, and to sketch a portrait of a different man, always endearing but more rational than the elusive tennis player that he once was.
An affable player, world number one at 20 years old, so very Russian, an inveterate party animal, capable of the best – the tennis lesson in the 2000 US Open final against Pete Sampras –, and the worst – smashed racquets, see-sawing matches– , he had brought his undulating career to an end in a last match at Bercy against Juan Martin del Potro on 11 November 2009. Without regret, he assures me.
"I’d had enough, morally, physically, psychologically. I haven’t touched a racquet since, I’ve just done some exhibitions. I’ve played football, hockey, but no more tennis." I remarked to him that Ivan Lendl also stopped playing completely after having put an end to his career. "He comes from an Eastern country like me… You can’t imagine how sport there was inculcated into children".
In a quiet and elegant café where he customarily goes, near Pushkin Place, Safin dives back into the subject of the Soviet Union, and its statistical and military conception of sport. "The system took people, exploited them and, from this number, some champions came through, but all the others were broken. The human being was absolutely not taken into account. All the pleasure of the game was killed…"
Safin left this world at 14 years old and went to Spain, but he had nevertheless been marked forever. Today he remains attached to this child who used to thump balls, almost in a shelter from the world, in a wondrous clearing in the heart of Moscow, the gigantic and grey capital, with wide avenues such as boredom. And then there were, here and there, a few small corners of poetry, like the modest Spartak Tennis Club, set among the trees.
"It’s true that it was an unusual place. How many of us came out of that scene … Andreev, Chesnokov, Kournikova, me, my sister…" It was Marat’s parents who were in charge of it. A real miracle for a sport that almost didn’t have a legal existence in the USSR. Stalin had considered it a sport of the petty bourgeoisie and banned it forever. "Even so, he played," Marat asserts.
So there was indeed a tennis court at the Kremlin, but it did not appear on any official plan. "It was very difficult to play during that time," he remembers. "There were a few courts but mostly it was difficult to find racquets, balls. In any case, it was difficult to find anything. The shops were empty, you had to queue for hours to buy a litre of milk. Lots of people have forgotten all that, mostly young people who never knew those times. I actually lived it. I’ve forgotten nothing, but they don’t realise where you’ve come from and the path you’ve travelled.”
This discrepancy seems to be what's driving his political involvement with the existing regime. The interviewer from the West doesn’t understand how a guy like him, who has travelled the world, lived in democracies, could agree to endorse Vladimir Putin’s presidency, even going so far as to support his party.
Marat Safin had granted us an interview after the election of Putin with 64% of the vote last March. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had clearly established that the elections had been rigged. There was ample evidence of ballot stuffing; above all, the main opposition hadn't had the right to stand.
It seemed the Gatsby of modern tennis was unable to justify the disputed election of an authoritarian regime. "All that, it's nothing but criticism from the opposition. In every country, every time there are elections, there are disputes. Look at the election of Bush ..." Sure, Marat, but the Russian government has a hold on the media, the judges ... The concept of the rule of law is trampled every day. Safin brushes all this aside with one of his two-handed backhands to put the Russian political situation in a historical perspective. "Look at where we’ve come from! Look at the changes occurring in a few years ..."
This is effectively an argument made by certain Russians, more numerous than one would think in Western Europe. Often people who profit from the system, but not just them. Nevertheless, they are not, in general, young and open to the world like Safin. In a country that loves a firm hand, great sportspeople often have their "légitimistes
". Close to power. Especially since Putin promotes sport as a factor in the recovery of the country. But all the same, one remains stupefied at the conversion of someone who, after losing his final at the 2002 Australian Open, had thanked his "family", pointing over to three sublime, busty young blondes who had followed him over the fortnight. Now that
was Safin. A man who kept a distance from himself, from tennis, from the world, who preferred life to his talent. Then how has he come to put on a tie, a dark suit, and to vote for laws that are occasionally unjust …
"It was Dmitry Svatkovsky, champion at the Sydney Olympics in modern pentathlon, who suggested that I go into politics." Putin’s party, United Russia, recruited sportspeople to give it a glamorous, dynamic image. "At first I refused", Safin continues, "it wasn’t my world. I was more business-oriented. And then I said to myself, why not. It could be very interesting and constitute a new step in my life".
He is, in fact, since December 2011, a deputy of the Nizhny Novgorod area, a city with more than one million inhabitants, almost 500km to the east of Moscow, and called Gorky during the Soviet era. It was there that the dissident Andrei Sakharov had been sent into exile… It’s slightly as if Yannick Noah had become a deputy of Meurthe-et-Moselle. "I go there one week a month and the rest of the time I sit in Parliament. I work on laws, within a very tight schedule".
The people aren’t fooled by the regime’s choice of these popular characters. The Russians have an expression for it, they say "muzzles for sale"*
. Male and female tennis players are real stars in Russia. And it’s an old tradition over there for sportspeople to sit in Parliament. This was already the case in the Soviet Union, to the chagrin of the opposition, who denounced these parliamentary clodhoppers. "These people don’t make the laws, they just press buttons", says Ilya Yachin, one of the most important personalities of the opposition. "We have the Parliament with the most sportspeople in the world, it’s grotesque …"
Safin goes on: "I’m very happy in my choice. I’ve invested a lot, I genuinely work. It’s a new career". Finally, not as distant as before, he reflects: "Top-level sport is good preparation for this work. I’m habituated to stress, concentration, competition …"
Sure, but top-level sport is played according to immutable rules recognised by everyone, with impartial umpires. Politics in Russia operates according to the rules of the established regime. Marat’s new family. We preferred the other one.