Article on the OAF we all know and love...
Safin can't help himself
By Barry Flatman
THERE are those who believe that Marat Safin is the most sublime of tennis talents and the player best equipped to wage a serious threat to the imperious Roger Federer.
Others genuinely fear for the Russian's sanity, so often does his inner psyche suffer peaks and troughs that don't affect his peers.
Both schools of thought hoped that his triumph in the Australian Open, which included a truly epic semi-final victory over Federer followed by an emphatic win over Lleyton Hewitt to capture a long overdue second major title, would finally exorcise the demons that have tormented Safin for so long.
Two months on from his Melbourne victory, however, such expectations seem to have been blown away. A first-round exit in Dubai has been followed by disappointing third-round exits at the prestigious Masters Series events in Indian Wells and Miami.
Are those wondrous few days at Melbourne Park really still so fresh in the memory? Listening to Safin's lament, it seems as though it all happened an age ago.
"Everything is becoming more difficult," Safin moans with the hang-dog look of a man struggling to recollect what it's like to win a match, let alone lift major prizes.
"It's difficult to go out there on court without the confidence, but it's almost inevitable. After Australia, there was always going to be a period when I went downhill again."
Less tangled minds than Safin's would have sat back for a week or so after winning the year's opening major event, savoured every aspect of what he had achieved and then used it as a platform of self-esteem from which to build. But not this young man; he is almost using the trophy as a weight to drag himself down in self-doubt.
"I am not like Roger (Federer)," insisted Safin, apparently paying no heed to the five-set victory he scored against the Swiss. "He's way too high and has all the skills. Even when he is not playing well, he has enough feeling and talent to cover it up. Me, when I'm not playing well, I just suffer a little bit more and my game sinks because most of the time it's a risk."
Unlike Federer, who was utterly pragmatic after his loss in Australia and has regrouped superbly to collect successive titles in Rotterdam, Dubai and, most recently, Indian Wells, a handful of post-Melbourne defeats were all that was required to wreck Safin's poise.
Like many artists before him, Safin seemed to be set on a course of self-deprecation. "I'm a perfectionist," he claimed. "It's really difficult for me, you know, to admit or to accept that I'm not playing really well."
Had his Miami Masters opener against Irakli Labadze ended in another defeat instead of the extremely close 6-4 2-6 7-6 win, there is no telling how much Safin would have sunk. After all, he was facing the world's No.105-ranked player, a man who really does have problems; Labadze has a kidney stone that regularly demands the strongest of painkillers, not to mention a subpoena from an Austrian court on the issue of possible match-fixing.
Safin, despite winning his first major title at the 2000 US Open, has long struggled with simply existing in America.
He has never progressed past the third round in seven attempts at Indian Wells, and apart from once making it to the quarter-finals, he has been similarly ineffectual in Miami.
Repeatedly he has tried different approaches to overcome his alien feelings. Hotels have varied, along with the size of his travelling entourage. This year Safin was attempting to prove the more the merrier.
In an attempt to get back to family values, he has his girlfriend, his mother, Rausa, and his younger sister Dinara (a competitor on the WTA Tour) along for company, as well as coach Peter Lundgren and fitness trainer Walt Lammers.
"Everybody's here on my shoulders because I need the support," he said. "There are times when you bring people you know to carry you, and that's what I'm trying. If that doesn't work, next time I'll try something different again."
Yet all the regular hallmarks of the 25-year-old's frustrations have been there to see. He mangled two racquets after losing his temper in one match, and then ripped his shirt down the line of his breastbone before tugging it off his shoulders and tossing it away on the court in disgust. Of course he received the obligatory warning for his behaviour; it wouldn't be a true Safin struggle without a little enforced discipline thrown in.
The continuing disappointment is that he needs to resort to such indiscretions. We hoped that Australia would represent a new dawn for this undeniably hugely talented individual. Sadly, that doesn't seem to be the case.
Last edited by Tennis Fool; 04-04-2005 at 05:55 AM.