Re: News & Articles Part 3 - The Return of the Yeti
His final rage against the machine
Mercurial tennis star Safin will retire having never quite maximized his enormous talents
Bruce Arthur, National Post
Published: Saturday, October 10, 2009
Marat Safin is to retire from tennis aged just 29. But for his magnificent flaws, the Russian might have been the most talented player of his era.
Somewhere in China, the quest is almost over. After Shanghai, there's still Moscow, and St. Petersburg to go; if Marat Safin doesn't unexpectedly quit in his homeland, it will end in Paris at the final Masters Series event in November. There, Safin's long and mercurial tennis career will conclude at age 29, whether mercifully or not.
Safin has said he doesn't care about the losses anymore -- he was apparently unworried about falling to Rafael Nadal in the quarter-finals of the China Open yesterday in Beijing -- but it will still be a sad day. There has rarely been an athlete so magnificently flawed as the big Russian bear; there has rarely been so outsized a personality, transparent for all to see.
He might have been the most talented player of his era; "I think the only person who could really come close is Roger [Federer]," fellow Russian pro Dmitry Tursunov once told me, in all seriousness. Safin was huge and catlike and powerful; he was capable of hitting any shot, any time. He was given everything but the ability to control the gifts he had been given. "Everybody knows which is my problem," Safin once said in Toronto. "It is mental."
He said stuff like that all the time, because it was always true. In 2000, he was a 20-year-old in the final of the U.S. Open against Pete Sampras, still the top-ranked player in the world, and Safin simply demolished him. He disassembled the legend piece by piece, and Sampras called him the future of tennis, and a couple months later, Safin was No. 1.
And then came the years of struggling in his own personal wilderness. Safin would hit a running cross-court forehand as unreturnable as the wind on one point, and then yank a simple backhand so wide the linesman would duck. He would smash his racquets; he would howl at them and at the skies and at himself in Russian; he would even pull down his pants after winning an epic point at the French Open.
It was as if he was written by Shakespeare, translated from Dostoyevsky. I asked him once at a news conference if he was fighting with himself, and he groaned, threw his head back, said no. Then his eyes twinkled.
"You ever hear the story of the hippo?" Safin asked. I confessed I had not. So Safin told the story.
"The hippo comes to the monkey, and says, 'Listen, I'm not a hippo.' So he paints himself like a zebra. And [the monkey] says, 'Look at you, you are painted like a zebra, but you are a hippo.'" The roomful of reporters giggled.
"So he goes and says, 'I want to be a leopard.' So he took the colours, and he goes to the monkey, who says, 'Sorry, but you are a hippo.' So then he comes and says, 'I am happy to be a hippo. This is who I am, so I have to be who I am.' And he's happy being the hippo."
The room was laughing now, incredulous, but Safin kept looking at me. He paused. He smiled widely. "So now you know the story. I am happy the way I am. That's me."
That was Safin. For anyone else, his brutish good looks, his bottomless charisma, his dark flashes of wit, the parade of super-models cheering him on from the stands -- it would all be a blessing. For Safin, they meant his life was far too much fun to take tennis too seriously.
Safin only regained all that brilliance of 2000 once, though he might have accomplished more in another era. Of the 22 Grand Slam tournaments between Wimbledon in 2004 and Wimbledon this year, Federer and Rafael Nadal won 20, and just two other men broke through: Serbian Novak Djokovic, currently ranked No. 4, and Safin at the 2005 Australian Open. There, he out-duelled Federer in a beautiful semi-final: 5-7, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6, 9-7, after which Federer said, "I was playing almost as good as I could."
After that, Safin's game fell apart again. He kept striving and found occasional flashes; the last one came at Wimbledon in 2008, where the man who hated to play on grass reached the semi before falling to Federer. It was the last time he gained a firm grasp on his talent; since then, he has mostly scraped towards the end. Someone asked him a few weeks ago whether he wanted to do tennis commentary, and he said no.
"I'm ambitious. I want to achieve some things," Safin said. "I'm different than another person who wants to lay back and do nothing for the rest of the life and talk nonsense on ESPN, talk about my match against Sampras. I will not do that. I want to achieve something else."
"I talked to Marat," Djokovic told reporters. "He said he wants to go mountain climbing. I think somewhere in Argentina in January."
Mountains to climb; that was always Marat, year after year. He lacked the icy perfection of Federer, or the unbreakable focus of Nadal; Safin was a mortal with godlike gifts, but a mortal nonetheless.
But the nobility of Safin was that he tried to master himself, year after year. In 2006, his knee was a mess and his game was gone, and he travelled from city to city looking for it. In Toronto, he fell in the first round, raging against his invisible chains like a madman. He looked tortured out there, lost. Sprawled on a leather couch in the players' lounge afterwards, he was asked whether he had ever considered retirement. The big man frowned and smiled at the same time, puzzled.
"Why? Why to quit? To quit is the easiest solution to just run away from the problems," he said, with feeling. "But the problems will catch you sooner or later.
"Without tennis, I wouldn't be nobody. Just because the tennis is sh--, I can't complain and say that it's enough ... I keep on trying. I still have to give back to tennis, for what tennis gave to me."
He is almost done giving now, so on to Paris. There, after all these years, Marat Safin will finally surrender to himself.