Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - Marat TV: A Teenager in Paris
Have you heard that Marat Safin is retiring? His long and mostly painful farewell tour made its way through his home country of Russia this week, where he lost to Evgeny Korolev in the Kremlin Cup. Safin likely has no regrets about packing his bags this year—50 percent of his tournaments have ended in first-round losses in 2009—but by the U.S. Open he was beginning to regret he’d ever mentioned it out loud. “It’s too many questions about what I’m going to do, why I’m retiring and this and that,” he said with a tired but tolerant shrug. If he wasn’t exactly enjoying himself, by August he had learned to smile at those questions. At least he looked a little happier than he had in the spring, when he performed the Herculean feat of breaking his racquet in half at the handle during an excruciating defeat to Nicolas Lapentti in Monte Carlo.
Not that it mattered. Whatever Marat’s mood, fans came out to get one last look, and hopefully one last racquet smash, as he passed through their part of the world. I’ll miss watching and listening to him play as well, especially his rifle-shot serve and backhand, but I’ll also miss the unique and heady atmosphere of his matches and audiences. There was always a giggling anticipation in the air—giddy girls will do that—and it would peak whenever he missed a couple of shots and began to look to the heavens for an answer. Here we go, you could hear the crowd thinking. “This is what they paid for, this is what they want,” Safin might have said to himself, Connors-style, if he’d been more of a showman.
But he wasn’t. Safin had all-world talent, but he was too much of a normal guy, even too much of a gentleman in a perverse way, to exploit all of it. The attention seemed to suffocate him, and he had a love-hate relationship with the sport, which his mom drilled into him when he was a kid. Safin seemed to play less from the joy of competition or performance, and more as an obligation to his athletic gifts.
I can see Safin becoming the Ilie Nastase of this era, the gifted head case whom fans will look back on with fondness and say, “I remember the days when Safin would be out there bashing his racquet. That’s when tennis was great…” Starting today, I’ll get the nostalgia going early with a series of You Tube clips of the man at his best and worst—sometimes they occurred in the very same point. I’ll begin with a look at a match I watched at the French Open in 1998, Safin’s classic five-set quarterfinal with Cedric Pioline.
—I wrote at length about watching this match in a post two years ago (wow, time does fly). It was the first time I’d been to Paris and Roland Garros, and the first time I’d seen Safin play. I was there on a trip with my family. We would eventually visit my mom’s relatives in Germany, but along the way we spent three days in Paris and two at the tournament. We were blown away by the drive through the center of the city, executed in the traditional whirling, zig-zag fashion of a Parisian cabbie. I spent my days looking up in awe at the house where James Joyce wrote, the apartment where Oscar Wilde died, and the house where Gertrude Stein talked (I liked writing); admiring the Marais while trying not to get leveled by a careening Mini; and finding the wall behind the late Serge Gainsbourg’s house, where love notes to him are scrawled—call it the hipster version of Jim Morrison’s grave. We had a great time, and we saw some great matches.
—The videos of this day are broken into six parts. None are perfect encapsulations, the way the You Tube highlight reels are, but they give you an idea of what was going on that day. I chose this one in part because the sun was out during this part of the match. I remember it coming in and out that day, and it was chilly enough that its rays made it feel like a whole new and better afternoon. Seeing a speck of that sunlight again here brings back the feeling of that day, the ambiance in the stadium, even the particular temperature and warmth and smell of the air.
—I also chose this clip because the first thing you see is a thin, clean-cut, 18-year-old Safin jumping to hit a backhand. If he didn’t invent this shot, he was one of the first I saw use it. But it was his norma, court-bound backhand that was the revelation, as well as the revolution. It allowed him to fend off the inside-out forehand, which Ivan Lendl and Jim Courier had used to dominate through the early part of the 90s. This would help make the men’s game the all-around, four-cornered slugfest it is today. Watching this match live, particularly the pace Safin was generating on all of his shots, the future seemed to be right in front of us. Seeing it 11 years later, it doesn’t appear that these two guys are belting the ball with abnormal power, but that’s the way it seemed that day. Safin, who had beaten Andre Agassi and defending champion Gustavo Kuerten at this event, and who came out firing here, looked like he might knock Pioline through the tarp at the back of the court. But the wily old Frenchman adjusted.
—Speaking of Pioline, look at his old-school, long-follow-through, one-handed backhand, which is shown in slow motion just a few minutes after Safin’s new-school jumping two-hander. He was a wonderful player to watch, a mix of the athletic and the balletic. Plus, he usually appeared to be exhausted; or, as the announcer says here, très fatigué. Guess it’s tough to smoke and play tennis. The Parisian crowd, of course, let him know their displeasure through the years, but on this day he had them. I can still hear the chant: “Ced-reek!”—clap-clap-clap—“Ced-reek!” I’d never heard a tennis audience sound so united.
—For a fan who had only attended tournaments in the U.S., the center court at Roland Garros constituted a sort of alternative tennis universe. Clay instead of asphalt; red courts instead of blue or green; an entire stadium united in its approval and disapproval, and ready to show it at any moment; loopy strokes and long hair; rallies that extended the playing area far beyond the lines. When you’re at Roland Garros, you can’t believe the court you play on at home can possibly be the same length and width as the one you’re looking at below you. It’s like a ruin—the Tennis Court of the Clay Gods.
The alternate universe extends to the sports stars in the crowd. At one point, everything stopped as two people walked into the French Federation box at the back of the court. The crowd began to stand and clap, and even the players paused and looked. Anna Kournikova had walked in with a strange-looking, gap-toothed guy in a white hat. My parents and I looked at each other and shrugged. It turned out to be Ronaldo, the Brazilian Ronaldo, in Paris for the 1998 World Cup. (Look how young he and Anna look there!) Seeing the reaction of the audience to him, I felt like I was eavesdropping on the conversation of a family I didn’t know.
—Safin lost that match to Pioline 6-4 in the fifth, a harbinger of many close losses to come. But I was impressed, of all things, by his maturity. In his own way, he drew the audience toward him, another harbinger of things to come. Late in the afternoon, Safin slammed his racquet to the clay. The crowd came down on him with a frenzy of boos, frightening in the uniformity and intensity of its sound. Safin picked up his racquet and immediately put his hands in the air to apologize. The crowd cheered; he’d listened to their scolding and admitted he was wrong. But as he was doing it, there was a rakish half-smile on his face.
We’ll miss that, too.
Next episode: Back in Paris six years later, Marat drops trou in the Bullring. And I’m there again.
Have a good weekend.