sorry for the typos!!
The Agony (and Fleeting Ecstasy) of Marat Safin
He has been called the purest physical talent in the history of the game. So why doesn't Marat Safin dominate the tennis world? John Jeremiah Sullivan explores the dark psyche of tennis's tormented genius.
I've hated him, you know. I've hated that wack-job six-foot-four-inch beautiful genuis Tatar. Oh, never for long. Never with consistency that might have led to true renunciation. But there have been times when i wanted to see him... well, not suffer - because i know he suffers; he tells us so. It's one of this words - suffering:
"I just suffer a bit more"; "I was suffering too much"; "That's why I am suffering"; "Why should I suffer?" Not that, tehn, but ti see him humbled. Yes - scolded, even. I'm watching at home, let's say, and he's just netted a midcourt forehand approach ahot for the twelfth time in the set, having gotten all freaked out about some completely inconsequential baseline error sic games earlier, and maybe he's talking to himself, but load enough for the mikes to pick up, saying things like "Why you
fecking run? Why not you make heem
fecking run?" when from nowhere comes a tiny, creaking voice. The crowd goes still. A filthy crone, a babushka, has materialized in the service box, and she's waving a bony finger at him. "You," she hisses, "you were born the greatest of them all, and look at you, muttering to yourself like a душевнобольной. You betray your gift, Marat Mikhailovich, and now you will know what it means to suffer."
Safin could answer - has pretty much answered, in fact, when a statement along those lines has been put to him by some reporter - that he's done so much, that in eight years he's been a professional tennis player, he's won two Grand Slams and made the finals of two other, has won thirteen other ATP tournaments, has twice (briefly) been number one in the world, and has with some consistency stayed among the top twn; that he's played in not a few truly classic matches, has overcome injuries, and has futhermore been a boon to the sport insofar as his personality, his looks, and his behavior on and off the court have given us something to talk about, to get worked up about. He could retire, as he more then threatened to do (the first time, reportedly, when he was 20), could install himself in a dacha somewhere with "a kid in one hand and a Tsingtao in the other" (as he once described his ideal future during a press conference in China), could leave behind forever the game that has been his love and tormentor since childhood, the game that may have saved hime - as he mused at this year's French Open - from a life spent "picking up bottles in a park in Moscow," and no one would have grounds on which to fault hime. We would do right to thank him, in fact we would follow the game.
But I've never been able to bring myself to feel this way. It's part;y because of a mystifying pattern that has marked Safin's career from the start, of doing something magnificent, and then immediantely fallig apart for a period of months, if not years. Each of what once could call the three watershed moments of his career - his "Who the hell is that kid?" win over Andre Agassi in the first round of the 1998 French Open, which introduced him to the tennis-watching world; his victory in the 200 US Open final over Pete Sampras, when he played such frighteningly perfect tennis that some people, including his former coach the Swedish champion Mats Wilander, think it might have permanently messed with his head; and his semifinal, then final, wins in this year's Australian Open (against Roger Federer and Lleyton Hewitt, respectively), matches in which the level of play was accurately described by ESPN commentator Cliff Drysdale as "inhuman" - each of these has been followed hard upon by a period of decline, or atleast once in which the virtuosity he's able to summon goes missing.
It's partly that, yes, but it's also - more so - that when he is one, he's a god. The beauty of Safin's tennis is the beauty of overwhelming powere and precision, less clever than crushing. He's not a scrapper; you won't see him pull off too many magical saves; he doesn't adapt too well, midmatch, doesn't beat players at their own games - what he does do, can do, instead, is render his opponents' games irrelevant.
There's a certain one-two move that, when Safin's demons have temporarily lef him alone, he likes to execute. It begins with a two-fisted backhand approach shot rom the ad-court corner, just inside the baseline. He'll move up on the ball and sort of hop on his right leg, as if he's stubbed his toe, teetering as he tears the shot crosscourt. The landing from the little jump becomes itself the beginning of his sprint toward the net, during which his movement is strangely flowing and catlike for an athlete of his size. He's carrying so much mass and inertia forward that you think he's going to run right through the net, but then he pounds to a stop at the last second and performs the daintiest little touch-drop volley.
The effect of this maneuver, visually speaking, is a bit like seeing a pterodactyl that was flying straight at you suddenly shape-shift into a moth and flutter away.
It's this, and a dozen other little things like it, that can make you clutch your head over Safin when he's in one of his lost periods, inexplicably bowing out before guys who shouldn't be able to stay on court with him. But of course, those very qualities that make his game so dangerous are the ones that make it so fagile, or unusually vulnerable to psychological swings, because in order to play the kind of tennis that Safin correctly considers "his game," one has to, as they say, "dictate play" relentlessly, and in order to do that - against the best players in the world - one has to believe it's possible. The question, then, of why Safin can never maintain this belief for long is one that haunts all Safinites(sic).
I think it was partly in anger, craving answers, that i went to meet him at the Hamburg clay-court event in May. Since the glory of the Australian Open, there had been Dubai, Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Rome, in none of which he made it pst the third round. His own manager has expressed bafflement in the face of this latest collapse. His current coach, Peter Lundgren, when I'd asked how winning a Grand Slam could make a man lose his confidence (a cause-and-effect process that Safin described as "inevitable"), said simply, "It's amazing." But if i could get the fucker alone for a few minutes, force him to explain...
It's sunny outm and we're in the back of an expensive little black car, creeping through lunchtime traffic in spotless Hamburg. Safin is slouching, face to the window. A guy from ATP Europe is chatting in Spanish on his BlackBerry in the frount. I confess I'd hoped for a more intimate setting - perhaps a small beige room with a card table and an ashtray and a single lightbulb overhead - but this'll suffice.
I open rather innocuosly. Who did he draw for the first round tomorrow?
He means Alberto Martin, a Spanish clay-court specialist who made the quarerfinals in Rome a week ago.
"I don't know much about his game," I say.
"Don't need to know," Safin mutters. "He's Spanish. That is all you need to know."
It's hard to tell whether he syas this with contempt or kind respect. Whatever the case, it's not a subject I want to pursue, as it will only distract from the task of steering Safin into an arena of trust where i might use journalistic tricknology to get him to tell me that his problem is, the secret of his not-enough-success.
He makes some general complaints about the tour. "The people who run the sport," he says, "they're not really thinking about the players.... Eleven months of a season - no other sport has that."
I point out that horse racing has it, thinking in this way to make clear my sympathy (pro tennis players are treated like beasts).
"That is a hobby, not a sport," he says.
I take advantage of the ensuing awkward pause and test-drive the one theory that's always made the nearest semblance of sense to me, in trying to account for the Safin phenomenon, namely, perfectionism. He's said a ew times that he see himself as a perfectionist. Of course, he says so many things, but this one matches what you can see in his game, the way a single ugly shot can derail him from what looks like a certain win, the way an error on his part always seems to bother him twice as much as a great shot from his opponent, the way he almos never seems happy on court.
It's my feeling that Safin's relationship to the game is fundamentally aesthetic. He may occasionally bandy about that tiresome tennis shibboleth "result," which gets used about 1,500 times per press conference (as in "I made a good result," "The important thing is to get a result," etc.), but I don't think he really cares so much about winning qua winning. Oh, I mean, he cares passionately about it, of course, but there's another, deeper level at which what he cares about most ins playing beautiful tennis, which means, for Safin, playing perfectly. That he has occasionally achieved this is sort of cruel, when you think about it. It's like Wilander said, when I asked him about his idea that the US Open final against Sampras in 2000 had, for a time, hurt Safin: "It turned out to be the worse thing.... Every time he stepped on a court, he expected to play that way."
That way... Safin was 20 years old, almost coltish. He won in straight sets - a startling enough statistic on its own - against a man who hadn't lost a Grand Slam final in five years (and who'd been in plenty of them); but ut was the seeming nonchalance with which he did it that caused mouths to hang open. He was bending in passing shots like he'd found a way to mess with the laws of physics, dropping in thousand-pound aces, the moving right along as if they were practice balls. Dick Enberg, doing commentary, burst out at one point, "The game isn't that easy! It cannot be that easy!" After the match, Sampras called him "the future of the game," and that was the word on Safin for a time, till suddenly it wasn't. Not that he ever really faded, as a threat - but he wasn't supposed to have been a threat. He was suppose to have been a dominator. That was the script.
There's something he said during the trophy ceremony after that Sampras match, something i didn't notice at the time but that sticks out now. They were trying to get his take on the match, and he said he couldn't really remember the match, that he remembered only the very last game, when he'd had to serve it out. And here is the curious thing: That's the only game in which Safin played less then perfectly. Sampras even had a break point on him in that game. It was like the whole rest of the match - the astonishing, gorgeous part - hadn't even existed.
Well that's precisely how true perfectionism works. Contrary to what the rest of us may assume, your clinical, bona fide perfectionist doesn't especailly give a crap about the perfection itself. That's just the way it's suppose to go. Nothing to get all gleeful about. The screwups, the moments - the countless moments - when the performance is out phase with the natural order: Those you notice, those you can get emotional about. And this, I really do think, is the reason that although Safin's reactions to his mistakes are perhaps unprecedented in their fury (and I'm not forgetting McEnroe here, but McEnroe was bratty, and Marat Safin, when he's shrieking or breaking rackets or destrying near-court objects, is sort of scary), his deportment in victory tends to be conspicuously muted and unimpressive.
You could see this on display after the most recent Australian Open final, against Hewitt. Safin had so many reasons just to go completely ape-shit after that match, to sob, to drop his shorts (like he did in last year's French Open), to throw a ball girl into the stands, whatever he wanted. In addition to not having won a Grand Slam final since his first, in 2000, he'd lost in the final of this particular event twice in the preceeding three years. Just to reach Hewitt, he'd had to get past Federer, the current messiah of tennis. That had been a match for the ages - "the match of the year," as they're still saying on TV - an ungodly tense four-and-a-half-hour five-setter that saw match points for both players before the final game but that ended with Federer literally on his hands and knees, crawling toward the net in disbelief. And now here he was, having won the one-hundredth Australian Open against yet another favored opponent, having silenced armies of critics (they'd called him "the one-Slam wonder"), and I might mention that he'd just turned 25. And you know what he did? He gave the weakest little fist pump. I don't really know how to describe the gesture. It was like, "Cool, that went well." Sure you might say, maybe he doesn't like to show his emotions so much. To which one might reply, Have you ever watched a Marat Safin match?
Back in the car, Safin wasn't having any of that. He's over his perfectionism, you see. "You start to realize," he said, "that apart from perfection, if you want to win, you have to be satisfied with the win. You don't have to play. And the luck..."
Luck? What good were my pitiful moves against such fathoms of tragic denial?
He was born in Moscow in the winter of 1980, the closest thing you could be to a tennis blue blood in Soviet Russia. His father is the director of an important athletic club, and his mother, Rausa, once a world-class player in her own right, has been a coach there for many years - in fact, the majority of the top Russian female players have been her charges at one point or another, including Safin's six-foot younger sister, Dinara, who at teh moment is posed to break into the tope twenty. People say Safin's mother used to park his pram by the side of the court during lessons, and it's safe to say that from the first time he held a racket, doing well was about something more than fun. It was, among other things, a way of attaining "a better life."
Through friends of friends, Safin's family found him a sponsor, and at the age of 14 he was sent to Valencia, Spain, where he did most of his serious training. His sister says that at first the situation was "very difficult for him... He didn't know Spanish. He was coming home once in three months." And he carries in his personality the marks common to those who are hurled into adult existence - a wariness that is eager to turn to warmth, and does so the minute he senses whoever he's talking to is okay, is for real.
And there's another side to Safin one is tempted to trace to his having been kicked out of the boat and told to swim at a young age - his fully formed character. The adjective mature might not leap to mind in reference to a player who once called attention to the beauty of the three women barely clad blonde women seated in his player's box, but it's nonetheless thrue that Safin emphatically does not give off that quality of emotional and itellectual stuntedness one so often notices in professional athletes. He's odd; he has hes own thoughts about things. This is a truth you're more likely to pick up from reading interviews with him that have been conducted in Russian or Spanish, rather then english, which he speaks quite well but with a kind of false fluency that doesn't allow him to venture very far from a store of quips and platitudes. If you read his Russian interviews, you'll find exchanges like this one:
Q: Besides the coach and the masseur, are there other people accompanying you at the tournament?
A: For what? To entertain? I don't like clowns, I find them repugnant.
Or this, one of my favorites:
Q: It's well-known that at 14 you joined the tennis school in Valencia, but it gets somehow forgotten that before that you applied to the Bollettieri academy in the States two years earlier.
A: That trip ended in nothing. They refused me, saying they didn't see potential. Like, nothing can be done out of me.
Q: Did yours and Bollettieri's paths cross later?
A: Yeah, a few years back we met and he offered his excuses for his mistake.
Q: Was it pleasant to gloat?
A: On whom? Bollettieri knows nothing about tennis. When I was 12, I was hurting, but I soon understood what kind of man he is.
Maybe I'm not being fair to the other players here - Andy Roddick, for instance has a fine wit when he wants - but somehow it's hard to imagine Roddick saying, "I soon understood what kind of man he is" in any language. Wilander said, "He has a lot going on upstairs. Too much, I think. Life is not as simple for Marat Safin as it is for a lot of other players."
At the photo shoot, the makeup woman appears in the doorway, a few paces behind Safin, and says, "I guess we're done... He just walked away."
It's surprising to see what a competent model he is. He's following the photographer's orders and seems, in general, much less grumpy. He's even telling bad jokes to the little crowd: "What is the blond girl with the black hair?" (ie with a dye job) "Artificial intelligence."
It's harder to say anything about Safin and not, sooner or later, address the matter of his physical beauty. I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm as straight as some sort of atomically precise geometer's tool, but when Safin pulls off his shirt, you're thrown for a second by what a specimen he is. Sometimes the genome just lines up, you know? It's like Jim Courier said: "That's the body. If you could pick one, if you could design one..." Andit'd be foolish to pretend that this hasn't played a part in Safin's career, that isn't one of the reasons he stayed at the forefront, mediawise, during those dismal years - one of the reasons everyone involved with the sport wishes he'd win more consistently. It's an unesy time for the ATP right now. America is still the biggest tennis market, but American ans tend to care exclusively about homegrown players, and on the men's side especially, the bench is pretty shallow. (In terms of title contenders, there's Roddick and... Roddick.) The industry would like nothing more than to find a foreign player so alented, so good-looking, and so charming that they'd tune in to watch him in Ohio. Safin could be the male Sharapova, except... not quite. As a not-not-not-for-attribution source in the industry told me, "There's a summer publicity tour this year, with Rafael Nadal and Federer, in conjuncttion with the US hard-court season. You can believe they'd love to use Safin like that. But it's fifty-fifty wheter he'd change his mind and back out.
Safin notices the butts of some hand rolled cigarettes in an ashtray. He picks one up and sniffs it. "Somebody smoking joints?" he says.
"Do you like it?" (This seems to be the Russo-English version of "Good shit?")
The photographer asks him about the tattoo on his right arm: "What does it mean?"
"Live fast, die young," Safin says.
In the limo again, on the way back to the hotel, this eems like the natural place to resume. "So your tattoo means 'Live fast, die young'?" I say.
"Actually, no, it is symbol of the monkey," he says. "But I like that the people always go, 'Wow, really?'"
I have a front-row seat for Safin v. Martin. I've never watched a tennis match from this close, and there's a powerful, defamiliarizing intensity ti it. No other sport isolates its athletes to the degree you find in a professional singles match. Not even a ring-man or a caddy for comfort. So much time between each point - to think about what's going wrong, to get nervous or mad, to doubt. So much physical space around each player. And there's the hush, the always imperfect hush - it's a game that can be disrupted by somebody coming back late from the bathrooom. Not, in short, a game that is friendly to head cases.
Martin, at five nine, looks almost jockeylike across the net from Safin, who's smaking the soles of his shoes with his rackets, one at a time, to shake lose the clay, then stamping his feet like a bull in expectation of the serve. He's en forme today, making no mistakes. All around me there are regular exclamations, after points, of klassik! And zuper!
The match is over in fifty-one minutes. Safin hasn't played like this since January, since the Australian. But this is only the first round. One must remain calm.
And indeed, his foray in Hamburg ends up being a perfect little tow-match distillate of Safinism. The very next day, in the second round, he faces the willowy blond Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero, "El Mosquito." They've known each other since they were kids in Spain, know the weaknesses of each other's games like you know how to piss off a sibling.
Safin wins the first set 6-4, and I can't suppress a grin. Our man is back. It wasn't just a blip. Safin's doing this thing he does, that he's pretty much alone on the tour in doing, of setting up early for a forehand and then neglecting to take any futher skitter-steps, just standing there waiting to devastate the ball. Ferrero seems unfazed, however, like he can afford to wait this out - like he knows something - which I noted under the heading "Bad Signs."
Ferrero starts out the second set by breaking Safin's serve. That's okay - he can get it back. But then it happens, at 2-0 Ferrero, second set, Safin serving, 40-30.
Safin hits a first serve the catches the center line. There's no audible call, and Ferrero returns the ball (a weak return); then Safin hits a winner. But in the middle of Safin's shot, Ferrero turns and makes this ambiguous gesture, like "Hey, wasn't that..." The umpire puts up his hands and calls the ball out. It's almost as if he's fallen asleep and then, waking up to find Ferrero staring at him, made the call out of embarassment. Safin accepts this turn of events - I don't see why, since he'd be right to complain - and he lets another few points go by.
Now they are at duece. And here, here is where he decides to lose it. He stalks toward the chair, muttering along the way. He's evidently asking why no one heard this first, mysterious "out" call. Fergus Murphy, the diminutive Irish chair umpire, says, "Well, Juan heard it, Marat."
"Who gives a feck what he heard?"
Safin spits. Murphy says something inaudible.
"So, how thee feck-"
"Just watch the language, Marat."
"No, listen, it's peesing me off."
"I know. But everyone can hear us."
"I don't give a sheet. You mech a meestech."
The crowd is as one now in jeering Safin, though I'm seeing smiles on their faces. Is he being mocked in his suffering here, or is he...feeding off them?
Murphy says, "I don't really understand you, Marat." So Safin climbs up the chair until his face is almost touching Murphy's.
"Don't come up here Marat," Murphy says, sounding equal parts scared and amused. But it is too late. Safin is now openly taunting the crowd, waving his arms like, "Yeah, yeah, cheer louder you eedeeots." Three solid minutes of this go by.
Safin wins the game, but on the changeover he's still complaining. He looks up at Murphy and shouts, Coriolanus-like, "If you mech a meestach, I cannot poot you a warning! You can poot a warning to me!"
Now it's Ferrero's turn. He bangs on the chair with his racket, to get Murphy's attention. "Im talking to him, Juan" Murphy says. And Ferrero points out that this is precisely the problem: Make him get on with it.
When play resumes, the match is clearly over, I know that might sound sort of fatalistic, but I've watched a lot of Safin matches, and I know the signs. Believe it or not, the self-berating and the racket smashing are meaningless. Those can happen whether he's fated to win or lose (amd they are certainly happening today). The true signs of disaster in a Safin match are slightly more understated. Sign 1: He smacks a ball that's no longer in play, a bit too aggressively, toward one of the corners. (Check.) Sign 2: He starts hitting for the lines, in attempting winners, when two feet inside would do. (Check.) Sign 3: He starts netting his midcourt forehands. (Check.) Ferrero win 4-6 6-6 6-2.
Later, at the press conference, it's not the loss but Ferrero's little snit - his beating on the umpire's chair - that has Marat upset. "He just came to the chair umpire," Safin says. "He didn't even say, "Excuse me."
The closest I come to forcing the point with Safin, back in the limo, is when we're talking about Roger Federer, the 24-year-old Swiss master and uninterrupted world number one for going on a year and a half. In a way, Federer is casting a shadow over the career of every professional tennis player right now, but the comparison with Safin is particulary pointed, because Safin is often mentioned as the one player who possesses the sheer physical genius to challenge Federer steadily, the one who could not just upset Federer now and then but maybe rival him.
"Federer," Safin says, "he cannot lose, because he has everything that Gid gave him, he used everything. Me, I have my weaknesses. My problems. That's me. But I can't fight nature."
"But is consistency a goal of yours?" I ask him. "Do you want ti be more like Federer?"
"Of course I want to be," he says. "But it is difficult. It's difficult because... I'm a different person from Federer. Nobody can be that consistant."
"But you beat him."
"Well, yeah, no..."
I'd sensed my opening - tiny as it was - and damned if I wasn't about to exploit it.) "You beat him when he was playing his best tennis," I say, "On a surface he likes-"
"One match doesn't change-"
"Well, the five-set semifinal of a Grand Slam. That's not just a-"
I am aware - Safin is, too - that I'm no longer talking as a journalist but as a demented fan.
"Yeah," Safin says, "but he won another couple of tournaments afterward. Me... Look, Federer is not an example! He has a different way of thinking. That's why he's the way he is. I'm a different person; I've been likethis for many years."
For maybe half a minute, we're silent, I'm wondering - sincerely asking myself - if I'd ever really want him to be more like Federer. Isn't there something about such regular perfection that leaves one a little cold? The thought takes me back to my days playing third singles on a public high school tream in Ohio, that feeling I'd get when we'd make it to districts, all confident after having won the city, and suddenly I'd be up against some kid with country-club strokes, and it'd feel like swinging a paddle underwater. Safin knows that feeling. As unapproachably great as he is, he knows it on a regular basis. He does suffer. Isn't that why I can't really hate him?
"My time will come," Safin says. "You can't forget how to play tennis. It's just waiting for the moment." And the he's climbing out the car, on his way back to the tour, on his way to losing at the French Open in the fourth round and at Wimbledon in the third round and after that - I refuse to doubt it - glory.
This is an mini article in the middle of the larger article
Marat's Brain On Grass
by Jonathan P. Niednagel
Marat is most adept in the right frontal lobe of his brain, which means he is very conceptual. When you map the brain, you see that when a person really gets in "the zone" and they're getting maximum visual aculty, the right anterior part of the brain becomes engaged. If Marat is very relax, he has vvery good visual perception. But if he screws up, he gets tense, and the critical centers in the back of the brain take over. The result is that he literally won't see things as well. So if he's melting down, one thing he could do is to look up. Without getting a delay of game, he can take a little time to look at something distant. He needs to pick out a palm tree or branch - not a chick in the crowd, and nothing that will distract him - and look at it for no more then five seconds. Then he needs to forcus on something that is about the same depth as his opponent across the court, something on the screen back there. Only for five seconds - anymore and he'll start daydreaming. If you do that for about a minute, it plays with the visual part of the brain and shuts down the critical part. Now he is just going to see and react. When people play at their best, they're not thinking about things, they're just reacting to what they see. But if the visual centers aren't working. especially for types like Marat, their whole game goes in the toilet