Re: News & Articles Part 3 - The Return of the Yeti
Requiem for a Ramblin' Man
by Pete Bodo
As anyone on the planet who's even remotely interested in tennis knows, Marat Safin is now officially retired from tennis. It's the last we'll see of him. I'm not sure I'd take that one to the bank. More than one tennis player has left the game to fling himself off the dock in the real world, only to fall. . .and fall. . . and fall. Never hit the water. Fall back up and find himself at the edge of the dock again, racket in hand, ready to backtrack to the ATP Tour for one last fling, or on to senior tour, where he can find one of the most satisfying, irreplaceable experiences of the athlete's life - the bonhomie of the locker room.
It may not seem like sitting around buck nekkid but for the towel wrapped around your waist, scratching your privates, while you banter and tell war stories is all that rich or enlightening an experience, but most career pro athletes aren't the kinds of people who aspire to graduate to brain surgery or playing violin for the New York Philharmonic. They inhabit a carefully sublimated world of daily warfare, in which the stress of battle is such that you require no further mission or objective for any given day. Just get through it, and worry about tomorrow tomorrow.
Competition is self-justifying and addictive, unless you happen to be really bad at it. Then you tend to pooh-pooh it's value, and the extent to which it can bestow a degree of basic, almost physical honor on those who master it's demands.
The day a player, especially one of Safin's ability and stature, wakes up with no combat to contemplate, seems at first both a gift and a novelty. That wears off quickly enough. Before long it can seem mostly lonely. That's one reason you'll never find me criticizing a player who's either trying to hang on when the game has passed him by, or who comes trotting back to the game like a lost puppy after being unable to land with a big splash in the real world. Hang on until they drag you away with a team of horses; it's unlikely that as productive and satisfying as whatever comes next may be, it will ever be as vibrant, or framed in such gloriously simple terms as the game. Living life in the monochromatic blacks and whites of Ws and Ls, and the emotions and relation-shaping understandings that come with them, is a privilege and luxury.
I once asked Jimmy Connors what he would most miss when he retired (and as callow as Connors was, he had a surprisingly wise grasp of what leaving the game means), and he didn't say a word. He just slowly raised his hand and imitated the motion of someone clapping.
This may be germane to Safin's prospects on day one of his new life, because he always seemed to be something like the quintessential "ramblin' man" romanticized in pop and country music. On the surface, the ATP tour was an ideal place for someone as seemingly footloose and emotionally shiftless as Safin. In another life, he might have been one of those lifelong backpackers, traveling from one hostel to the next, from one "experience" to another, the day taken up by travel, eating, finding a place to wash your socks. He always seemed more willing to see what the day brings, rather than seizing it.
Has there ever appeared to be anything permanent, or seemingly commitment-driven, in Safin's life? Not that I'm aware of, but I won't pretend to see into his soul. Perhaps he's spent the past three years salting away his earnings and planning to build a school for children left homeless by earthquakes. Somehow, I doubt it.
What I just wrote non-withstanding, I wouldn't underestimate the way Safin was able to survive and thrive on the world tennis tour. Because there's another, counter-intuitive truth in play. A certain kind of novelist might be tempted to model a deracinated, existentalist type of character on Marat Safin. But the reality is that so many of the players who have done as well as Safin are highly-focused and driven, organized, calm, and basically domestic. In other words, everything Safin is not. Underachiever? Not when you measure Safin by the yardstick of temperament; if anything, his extraordinary degree of talent managed to triumph on many big occasion over his powerful slacker gene. He was a player of the highest quality despite himself, not because of it.
Safin was much-loved partly because, like many other handsome, healthy, smart young men, he resisted the temptation to even try to make more of himself than he naturally desired. Has Safin ever shown even a smidgen of commitment to anything but his own desire to be true to himself - a trap into which many a potentially "good man" or woman has fallen? Safin was more bad boy than good man; being a tennis player he was able to get away with it. But that isn't the best preperation life after the game.
The world is littered with unhappy women who thought they could take a Safin-esque kind of guy and reform him, inspire him to be an achiever - to bend to the pressure and join the vast majority of men who embrace the call of responsibility, hard work, even family-building. But all his adult life, Safin seemed hellbent on clinging to something like his authenticity.Maybe he just wanted to stretch his youth to its fullest. He never let the challenge of success, or the voices of those who spoke for it, put him on a straight and narrow path. He had no interest in donning the same hair shirt Pete Sampras put on, or in using tennis as a tool for rehabilitation and making peace with the world, a la late-stage Andre Agassi. A ramblin' man just doesn't do that kind of thing.
There are dozens of Marat Safins knocking around the bohemian precincts of any city, but very few of them drop in to New York or Melbourne to pick up the odd Grand Slam title. This underestimates the work Safin put into becoming the player he was, but remember - that work, those endless hours in the hot sun, those long days spent following the same color-by-numbers schedule, is always done long before you ever heard even the name of the player in question. And it's done by players who never came close to becoming what Safin is - a multiple Grand Slam champion and former no. 1. Safin mastered a skill at a young age, and well-enough, and with enough additional, slowly-developing advantages (mainly, size and power, if not outstanding durability) to have become the best player in the world.
Grand Slam title are great, but there's a special, sometimes overlooked distinction to having been the best player in the world, no matter how brief your dominion. That ranking is more a validation than a singular achievement; it's like having made the summit of Mt. Everest. Nobody will ever climb a higher mountain, who cares if they insisted on taking the hike two, three, seventeen times? Once you've been no. 1, you're a no. 1 forever. That others were no.1 before you, or will be after you, makes no difference at all. Everyone's tenure in that position is, in terms of real time, absurdly brief. So everyone who's been there is, in some vital way, equal.
A common theme when we talk about Safin is self-sabotage; it's a useful strategy for any person who doesn't want to change, or grow up, or lose touch with some situational nexus that's enabled him to feel secure, and tucked into a personal comfort zone. I'm not the only one who thinks that Safin's soul and mind are a pinata that any therapist would give his eye teeth to whack. And truth be told, he never seemed more like. . . himself. . . than when he just made a mess of some match and gave the assembled press a good half-hour worth of self-bashing and dark, fatalistic introspection. He may be a narcissist, he certainly was a ham. But let's not confuse that with Safin being a phony; for he certainly was not that. The term "drama queen" should not be gender specific.
One thing I loved about Safin is that he was nearly impossible to interview. You just didn't have question-and-answer sessions with the guy. He saw through the way a typical interview seeks easy, simple answers to questions that, to him, probably open more doors than they aim to shut. You might ask him a question, and he would then talk about something that may or not have anything to do with what you were trying to get at. It was like he was covertly saying: I know the game you're trying to play here, and it's not going to work. This wasn't necessarily because he held journalists in scorn; it was more an expression of his fundamental ambivalence, and a fleeing from rather than drawing toward things like clarity, resolution, taking a position. At some level, he was very much a live-and-let-live guy. He was at his worst when you tried to pin him down on something, at his best when you gave him a chance to cut to the chase and deliver an opinion.
What Safin brought to the game, for better and sometimes worse, was a Big Personality. That's quite a contribution, when you consider the extent to which tennis is personality drive - both in terms of how personality shapes players' careers and results, and also in why and how people love and follow tennis. With the increased level of commitment required to succeed at tennis, and a relatively new but ever growing premium on becoming, for want of a better term, one-dimensional, Safin was something of a throwback.
Tennis will be a poorer game if the day ever comes when there isn't a Marat Safin ramblin' around and that day, alas, is here.