Translated by the "sweet" Damita.
Originally Posted by Damita
Marat Safin facing his demons.
At the age of 25, we thought he had calmed down. But since his victory at the Australian Open, in January, the Russian went through a lot of defeats without glory. Being prey to doubts again, will he find the key to his internal torments before Roland Garros?
There he goes again! Gloomy thoughts which appears and are eating into him. Dejection crises which make his craving shut up. Doubts which eat into his tennis. All those weird moods he has been going through since we know him and which start to sound like a cliché, in spite of himself, in spite of us. Wonderful champion at the Australian Open 3 months ago, in January, he has fallen to the bottom of water since then. He didn’t win any tournament due to matches beneath his talent. And now Roland Garros which is coming with this question: which Marat Safin will show? The one from Melbourne, calmed down (a little bit), with his high level of confidence and his brilliant game? Or the one from Monaco, Barcelona and Rome, whose mind is assailed with questions and whose racket is at half-mast?
And we thought he had changed since his Australian victory. He was in control, he seemed to have mastered his frustrations. A godsend for the tennis world: a new Safin was born, soon to be the regular challenger of Roger Federer. His brand new coach, Peter Lundgren, the guy who had restrained Marcelo Rios’ aggressive ardour, the guy who had then restrained Roger Federer’s fiery impatience, had once again done some great work. Armed with his Nordic coolness and his well-rounded stature, Lundgren had not let Safin’s uncertainties get the better of him. He has succeeded where his predecessors – 8 coaches since the beginning of Safin’s career – had failed. Marat’s work. Lundgren’s share. That was a gross mistake.
Because will Marat ever change? Gerard Tsobanian, the Russian’s French manager, disappointed, almost angry after his favourite’s failures, says: “Why is it not working for Marat? But because he has fallen back into the twists and turns oh his complicated psyche!”. And then he admits, puzzled: “The fact Marat might have lost his tennis in the Melbourne-Moscow flight is a mystery to me…”
But it seemed not to be a mystery for Russian player Nikolay Davydenko who says: “Marat took a long break after Melbourne. He preferred to go fishing near Moscow”. Lundgren, who in private is as surprised as Tsobanian, categorically denies: "In Moscow Marat trained very well. But after the Australia he was probably mentally tired. Since we are together he has worked a lot. He’s also given a lot during autumn. He won the tournaments of Beijing, Madrid and Bercy, he played the semi-final in Houston’s Masters. Marat was the man to beat during the last winter, and he is burnt now”. Then he adds: “At the beginning of the year, Marat was focussed. He didn’t show his emotions. He was in control. He was playing well. We need to have that state of mind back. But it’s difficult, he’s not someone who has a huge confidence…”
We would like to avoid the overused image. But with Marat you always go back to the same point, deep into the character who lives in his mind, back to his mental manipulations, his mental masochism. His mother, Rauza, doesn’t worry much about it and quietly explains: “Marat trains seriously, but he doesn’t know how to play his tennis anymore. He’s lost his concentration. Perhaps after Melbourne he wanted to succeed too much…”. Swiss Marc Rosset, a friend of the Russian – maybe because he acts like him, and like their 3rd buddy, the enigmatic Goran Ivanisevic – says: “What do you want, it’s Marat. Someone whose results depend on his craving, on his feeling, whereas some others can ignore their emotions. If something goes wrong in his mind, everything goes wrong. And he questions himself a lot, he sets very high standards for himself. Therefore, he may have won in Melbourne, it won’t change a lot: he may play 20 perfect forehands, if the 21st is bad, he’ll hate himself for it and it’s going to be a catastrophe”. Rosset talked to safin on the phone just after the Russian lost to Argentine Acasuso in the second round of Barcelona: ”Marat told me: “there will be better days”. He’s also quite fatalist for that matter”.
Here are some examples of this resignation that he expressed in a disconcerting month of April:
“Marat you went through tough times after Melbourne, is there an explanation for it?
- I just lost confidence. Anyway, over the past three years, I didn’t have any good results in these tournaments I played after Melbourne… It’s the kind of months I can’t play.
- I don’t know why. No matter how hard you train, how much you give of yourself, no matter if you try not to think about it or if you think about it a lot, no matter if you train a lot or not at all. At the end it doesn’t work anyway.
When you lost confidence, you just had won the Australian Open, you were feeling good…
- I took a break before Dubaï. I took 3 weeks off. Then I needed time to get used to the courts and I lost the confidence.
While you were on a break?
- Yes. During the break. It happens sometimes”.
Then he is asked if he has ever thought of working with a mental trainer. He prefers to avoid the question: “You have to be satisfied with what you are. You can’t change. You can’t pretend you can change because it’s not possible. No one changes, and no one can change you, no matter what they do, or how many time they spend trying. You must accept it. And I managed to finish in the top 10 for 4 or 5 years so… and I’ve been #1, so it’s not that bad”. Actually, Marat Safin worked last year with an Israeli psychologist found by Amit Naor, a former player who is now one of his managers, and whose name hasn’t been revealed to us by Marat’s staff as the Russian doesn’t like the idea anyway.
On another side, since Dubaï he’s been working with a new physiologist. He has fired the old talkative man Walt Landers, and he’s now working with Donald Nielsen, a former Thai boxing champion, who is also a chiropractor and an adept of mental coaching. Will Safin be able to peacefully associate physical and mental training at his contact?
“We must do everything to put him back on the right way” says Lundgren. Everything to get him out of this spiral, because they don’t want Melbourne to make him sink like his first GS title (the US Open, in 2000) did. More than 4 years have passes during his mythical victory over Pete Sampras in New York and his second GS title won in the last winter. Four years – the longest moment spent in wilderness by any player in the whole tennis history – to get rid of the image of a 20 year old exceptional kid whom his American victory had then crushed him more than it had transcended him.
“The situation is completely different this time” refutes Gerard Tsobanian. "At the US Open, Marat suddenly had to learn what it was to be famous. Now he is a more mature man, who has experienced plenty of good things in-between”. “And Marat knows today how to get out of this issue, whereas there are some who never find the solution to the problem” says Alexander Voltkov, a former player who has been Marat’s coach in the past and now works with the Russian Davis Cup and Fed cup teams. And he adds, laughing: “Tomorrow everything will be better with Marat, you’ll see. He’ll suddenly wake up in a better mood, he’ll decide to play better, and he’ll be there again”.
Safin will have the desire again. And everything will be solved. Peter Lundgren agrees: “I think Marat will be ready for Roland Garros. It’s a tournament he really likes”. And Marc Rosset: “You should never put Marat under pressure. And that’s why Peter is perfect for him. He is very quiet, he can be very severe when he has to be, but also very cool at times. And also yeah, what Marat is perhaps really looking for nowadays is the Grand Slams”.
Asked if he can compare Safin and Federer, Lundgren prefers to highlight their difference: “When I worked with Federer, he was an impulsive young man of 19-20 years, who has know found his maturity. Marat is a man of 25 years, he knows what he is doing”. Does the Swedish coach mean Safin isn’t a kid anymore, that he has found the way he wanted he to “live” his tennis and must accept the consequences? But does Safin even know what he wants in his life? His interviews don’t explain much. Of course he talks a lot. He bows his head down, takes a monotonous voice, and makes long, endless sentences which he suddenly ends in a disarming, charming smile. But what does he say about him really?
After a victory or a loss he stays calm, true to himself, which is a strange behaviour compared with his extreme reactions on court. In the past, he couldn’t stand it when his father was getting nervous and started screaming from the courtside. He asked him not to come to any tournaments anymore. But still… he’s always hiding behind this weird indifference, always saying he is happy the way it is. When somebody asked him, in Monaco, if he wasn’t frustrated of not being able to compete with Roger Federer since Melbourne, as everyone had been expecting it, he answered, impassive: "No, not at all. I try to play at my best, I try to be the most consistent I can. If something can help and I’m able to compete with Roger for the #1 ranking, good. But if I can’t do it, I’m still happy”.
Thus he pretends he is satisfied with him, with the way of life of the multimillionaire he is, dividing his time between his 3 apartments (in Moscow – on the Kalinski Prospekt where the communist dignitaries had their residence, in Valencia and in Monaco), with the lifestyle he has as a playboy, a reveller. Again, it’s hard to avoid the clichés. Marc Rosset: "It is a completely false image people have of him. Marat doesn’t like alcohol, and likes nightclubs even less. He’ll prefer staying at home with friends if he can. But if someone sees him out late a night, then everyone start fantasize”. But what about the beautiful girls around him? “OK, girls are there. But he’s handsome, he is attractive”. So there would be another Safin, more ambitious, with a superior emergency? Rosset again: “Maybe you shouldn’t try to understand Marat. Take him as he is. It took me a long time to understand him. Russians… you see them arguing, but at the end they fall into each others’ arms. Kafelnikov was the same. They are expressive, they cry, they laugh”.
That must be the famous Slavic spirit, which leads you to euphoria before it leads you into depression. It’s again an image which sticks to the character, but Safin himself uses it, probably to avoid the questions from journalists easier. Because it can’t be that simple. Somebody told him about Labadze’s theory: if the Russians don’t really want to play before they start a match, then they don’t really play. And Safin answered, mocking: “It’s Labadze. He is Georgian”. In brief, what does he know about Russians? Then it continues with the ups and downs of Davydenko, who disagrees: “Careful! Marat isn’t Russian. He’s a Tatar”. So what? What does it change? “Well, he’s a bit weird. Me for instance, I prefer to play doubles with Russians. I play with Andreev”. So Safin is a weird Tatar, born in Moscow in a family from Kazan, the capital city of the former autonomous Soviet Republic based on the middle regions of the Volga. He is a Muslim, like the 7 millions descendants of these Turkish- Mongolian nomads, even though he is not a practising Muslim. Dancer Rudolph Noureïev was another famous Tatar. And nobody ever understood his enigmatic genius either.
Françoise INIZAN. L'Equipe Magazine