Last Updated: October 22, 2009 12:13 PM
Exit Strategy: Q&A With Marat Safin
By Tom Perrotta
Though at times this year his play has been underwhelming, the ever enigmatic and entertaining Marat Safin has been able to use his 2009 campaign as an opportunity to say goodbye to the world of professional tennis. We sat down with the two-time major champ the day before the start of this year’s U.S. Open
, where Safin, the 2000 titlist, lost in the first round. Safin, 29, held forth on topics ranging from the tour, his career, his ego, the mountains, religion, marriage, children—everything except kickboxing. Part one of the interview is below; click here for part two.
What did you want from your last season
Marat Safin: First of all, you need to enjoy because it's been 12 years on tour. Some people they continue playing more than 12 years, they like it so much. I just realized that it was starting to get tougher and tougher, all the things, to travel and to play and to practice, and having matches and to travel again. It got too heavy for me, so I decided to move on to something different, something else. I think it's the right decision and I don't regret anything. Just to enjoy the last year, nice atmosphere around the courts, not to forget this feeling.
Has the farewell tour been what you expected, then?
MS: I thought it would be a little bit slightly different, all these feelings toward the tournaments. It's a little bit different, different from what I thought—it's difficult to explain. The feeling that I thought I would get from coming back for the last time to the tournaments, I don't get this particular feeling that I was hoping to get. But of course it's nice, it's nice to know that it's over—last time [at the U.S. Open], last time in L.A., last time in Cincinnati—just enjoy it. I don't want to have any more stress.
Everyone knows Safin the pro. Not as many people know where you came from. How would you describe it?
MS: [I] started from zero, from scratch, no money—not a beautiful story coming from the Soviet Union that had been stuck for 70 years with communism. There was no cash, nothing to play with, no racquets, no balls, it was terrible and not really simple to break through. I was lucky that some of the sponsors appeared in Moscow, they were trying to break into the Russian market. They just took care of me without any questions, they just gave me the money and hoped for a breakthrough.
Your mother started you in tennis. Was there a lot of pressure on you?
MS: There was no pressure, how can you have pressure? To get better at what? There is no chance to break through anywhere. No one believed in something, that [we] would end up playing tournaments and winning the Grand Slam—nobody even thought about it, not even close. In the 90s we broke the wall, so basically the first trips to normal, decent countries was in the 90s. How do you expect someone who saw maybe Wimbledon 30 minutes a day would be here?
Was the 1998 French Open a big moment for you? [Safin made the fourth round as an 18-year-old.] Was that a point when you realized you could go places?
MS: I realized a little bit earlier, when I became Top 200 after three months. I'd been traveling on the Challengers, which was something new. I was stuck in the satellites. My sponsor dropped me. So actually I got some money from IMG, they supported me for three or four months. I was ranked 460 in the world and then I ended up the year Top 200. So then I realized I had some game, I just need to develop it, and I need to work on it and I can manage to get somewhere near Top 100 and then we will see. But I never expected to be Top 50 at all.
What happened when you got there?
MS: Appetite comes with food. When you are Top 50, you want to see what will be the next step. I'd like to get Top 40, Top 30, closer, closer. You realize that you're a pretty good tennis player and you just hang in there and see how long you're going to stay there.
Was your 2000 U.S. Open victory over Pete Sampras a curse as much as a blessing?
MS: It was unexpected for me in the first place, because I didn't think that I would get close to the finals, and to go to the finals and beat Sampras on his home ground—I don't think so. And then I ended up in the situation where I was fighting for No. 1 in the world and I made it. I was kind of struggling—you know, what's next? I won a Grand Slam, I ended up No. 1 in the world, I never in my life would have dreamed about it and I made it. I was like, '"Game over." I achieved everything I wanted, what's next?' It's difficult when you're 20 years old to understand what you want and what you're aiming at. And also it was a problem that there wasn’t a real person who could guide me. I was guessing; I was a little bit stubborn. But anyway, for good or for bad, I did what I did, and I don't really actually regret. I probably would approach the situation slightly different [now], but that's okay. I would never exchange my life for anybody else's life. I'm grateful and I'm lucky and I'm blessed for the experiences I had throughout my life, and I would never, ever change my life.
Tell me about the Himalayan hike. Are you going to go again sometime?
MS: It's a little bit funny that people paid so much attention to that. I'm not going into space. I bought the ticket, I went to Himalaya, I had fun with my friends, that's it. I never thought it would make such a big noise—all the people, 'Wow, you went to Himalaya?' Yeah, well, buy the ticket, the ticket costs 600 bucks, you get your ass on the plane, and you go there. You spend two thousand dollars on the whole trip, even less. Thousand, it's enough. Don't be so, 'Oh how is it, how was that?' Get on the plane and spend two weeks of your time, just go there. A lot of people, they just talk, but they don't really do things.
So you’ll be doing a lot of traveling next year?
MS: Yeah, I will, I like it, why not? We travel only to tournaments—we don't see much of the world, even though we've been everywhere, we don't see anything except hotels and tennis courts.
Does that get annoying?
MS: We get paid pretty well, so [smiles]. That's our job.
You used to travel with a kickboxing champ?
MS: Well, let's skip this part, OK?
When you got to Wimbledon this year you had no racquets. What happened?
MS: Yeah, well, I forgot them in the airport. It happens. So I had to send.
You’ve been a pro for 12 years. How has it been different than you thought it might be?
MS: Actually, you go through phases. First, everything is new, it's interesting—you are enjoying the ride and the results they come easily. Second part, of course, is when you try to maintain yourself and the third part is basically the downhill, but you know it's not going to last long and you just need to enjoy as much as you can and stick around and see what happens and prepare your last year.
Who were some of your most difficult opponents?
MS: [Fabrice] Santoro was tough for me to play against, any of the guys with really great hands who could read my game.
Some of your favorites?
MS: [Roger] Federer of course because he can do anything he wants with the ball. He makes you play all different kinds of shots, slices, high balls, slow balls, low balls, topspin—you cannot really get a grip on the ball, which makes it complicated. You are out of rhythm all the time.
Would you have retired last year if you had won the Kremlin Cup?
MS: I kind of did, but then I got an offer and I couldn't really refuse it [from his manager]. A lot of people don't believe that I'm going to retire this year, but I can assure you, I've decided, yes, it's enough.
Your win over Federer in the semis at the 2005 Australian Open: Would you rate that match as more important than your victory over Sampras at the U.S. Open? [Safin went on to beat Lleyton Hewitt in the final.]
MS: I think it was probably the biggest match, but it was a different year, different circumstances, different time of career. I achieved the first Grand Slam, and the second Grand Slam, a lot of people were expecting it. “Is he going to win another one or not, or just stick with one and not do much about it?” So for me it was very important to win the second one—it was important for my ego. I had to go through tough moments, I had two finals before I won the Australian, and playing against Federer, of course—look at him now, he's the best player in the history of tennis. To play against him is not really easy, especially if he's in the semifinals it means that he's playing well, he's in perfect timing, perfect condition.
What are you going to do with your life after tennis?
MS: I have things to do, but I don't want to share.
You're not going to run a tennis academy, are you?
MS: No, something outside of tennis, but definitely something that will bring money. Why not? Otherwise it doesn't make any sense, otherwise it's a hobby and it's not as fun as work or doing something productive for which you get appreciated.
You are Muslim. Are you religious?
MS: Everybody’s got to believe in something. I'm not a fanatic, that's for sure.
Is the rumor true that you are engaged?
MS: No, no it's not true, not true. I don't really believe in marriage, but never say never. I just don't think marriage is for me.
What about kids?
MS: Of course, kids, but you don’t have to be married. Kids I would love to, as many as I can. :eeek:
Would you raise them to play tennis?
MS: Definitely not, something more—something different. From what I see, kids from ex tennis players, nobody really plays good tennis, so it's not gonna happen. Either they don't play tennis or if they play, they're pretty bad players. So why destroy my kid if he can do something good and something different that I'll be excited to see, instead of coming to tennis and seeing my son or daughter suffer on the court?
Will you play exhibitions?
MS: Of course, it will take me some time to get out of it, to enjoy a little bit my life, but definitely, of course, I'll come back to play some senior events, just to keep my butt in shape and remember the good times.
How many months off do you plan to take?
MS: I think six months is pretty—it's enough. And then you need to start to move, to move a little.
Tom Perrotta is a senior editor at TENNIS.