2007 is around the corner and with that the start of another season of tennis. And perhaps we will see the resurgence of one Marat Safin. What can I say about Marat that hasn't been said before. Here's one of my favorite articles on Marat and a quote from the man himself.
"My time will come," Safin says. "You can't forget how to play tennis. It's just waiting for the moment."
And that in a nutshell tells you all you need to know about Marat. He wiles away months and years whilst waiting for those moments of genius to strike him. Not for him the day in day out grind of merely playing good tennis. There is only the sublime or ridiculous. Which will he be next year? God (maybe not even god) knows. But then again long term Marat devotees know this already - supporting Marat is a battle of faith over reason. Everyonce in awhile you reach a state of transcendental ecstacy that leaves you gasping for more and which renews your faith against all logic.
There have been so many articles written about Safin. Safinator has done a good job tracking them down and I visit it often for articles like the one in GQ I might otherwise miss about my favorite Russian maverick (okay okay.. I've been told before - Safin is not Russian, he's a Tartar!).
However one article Safinator missed out which captures a little part of Marat's psyche is the one I am posting below. It was published in August 2004 and it really is a gem. So in the interest of recording it for posterity I copy it here.
On any given day, Marat Safin can play the kind of tennis that makes his opponent look like a club player, or he can be blown off the court by a nobody. Why is one of the sport's most talented players also one of its iffiest competitors?
By Bruce Schoenfeld
DARKNESS HAD LONG SINCE SETTLED OVER THE desert. Midnight was approaching. Yes there was Marat Safin talking in the hotel bar, cigarette in hand, with the next day's competition in the Pacific Life Open just hours away. . It was only a snapshot, a private moment, but it seemed to epitomize the 24-year-old Russian's tempestuous career. Two matches later, Safin was out of Indian Wells, a tournament some had picked him to win. "You try, and you try, and you really try," he said before leaving for the tour's next stop, in Miami. "Sometimes, you cannot do it." .
The prevailing wisdom is that Safin is perhaps the most gifted shot-maker on the men's tour but far from its most diligent craftsman. "He thinks he doesn't need to focus on tennis because he's so talented," says 22-year-old Mikhail Youzhny, who teamed with Safin to win the Davis Cup for Russia in 2002. "If I did like he does-his nightclubs, his smoking-I'd never make the Top 100." In Safin, Youzhny sees a man who lives too enjoyable a life to play his best tennis. "He is very happy now, he gets whatever he wants, so if he doesn't want to practice, he doesn't practice," Youzhny says. "If he was focused like Hewitt or Sampras, he'd be No. I for many years. It is not his problem, it is his choice."
"When Safin is playing his best tennis, he's probably the best in the world," says Jarkko Nieminen, whom Safin beat in a march to the final of this year's Australian Open that also included wins over Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick. "When he isn't, well..." Adds Lleyton Hewitt: "If he had the whole package, he'd be winning week in and week out. But sometimes the mental side of it lets him down."
To Safin, the truth is far more nuanced. If he stays up late, it's only because he must. The bottle of wine, the leisurely dinner, the afternoon off-they're just temporary distractions from the pressure that has been building since childhood.
It comes from a voice he hears in his head, the totalitarian voice of the Soviet system that was distilled into his tennis lessons from the start. "You have to, you have to," it tells him, and with each tournament that he wins-with each ace, each crisp backhand -life becomes more unbearable. "I make the tennis easy, and it looks nice on the court, but my problem is with myself" he says. "It's important for me to be calm, to have a good hour. I'm not dancing on a table or taking my shirt off in a disco, but I need a release. Otherwise, it becomes impossible."
For six years now, Safin has been hearing about how much ability he has, how he'd be No. I for years if he could just put the partying aside and bear down. His face clouds at the thought of hearing it again. There are only two ways of defusing such talk, either getting to No. I and staying there or playing so poorly that nobody would think to say it anymore. Safin has tried both, but he can't stick to either for very long.
"You hear people telling you that you should be better, you should have won five Grand Slams, you should be No. 1 for five years, you're losing your talent, you're losing your time, your train is leaving - you know how many times I heard this story?" he said at Indian Wells, his voice rising. "It's difficult to say to the person ‘Just stop,' because you're trying to be nice. You don't want to say 'shut up.' But I heard the same story already hundreds of times. It's getting a little bit annoying." He took a breath. His hand was balled into a fist. You could see how a man of such intensity might occasionally need a thingytail.
IF TENNIS PLAYERS, LIKE PAINTERS AND BULLFIGHTERS, WERE judged by what they accomplished only on their best days, Marat Safin would already be Bill Tilden. His US Open final against Pete Sampras in 2000, at once brutal and gloriously artistic, is why we continue to care so much about Safin. We have glimpsed his capabilities.
It's worthwhile to revisit that Sampras match, if only to remember how stunning it was at the time. Safin dismissed one of the finest players in history 6-4,6-3,6-3 in one hour and 38 minutes. His volleys were exquisite, his shot placement precise, his mad dash from a far corner to return a drop shot at the impossible angle of a '50s tail fin only the most acrobatic of his many winners. His serve kept Sampras on the defensive all afternoon. And from the time he ripped a service return to get a break at 3-3 in the first set, he gave back with pace and purpose almost everything Sampras threw at him. (Asked after the match how he managed to return Sampras' vaunted serve so effectively, he said, "You think I know?" He committed just 12 unforced errors. "Everything I did against Sampras, no matter what, was absolutely perfect," he said, sprawled on a couch in the players' lounge at Indian Wells after losing to Roddick in the second round. "I said, 'Wow, I can play such unbelievable tennis.' I never expected to play tennis this well."
He emerged from that U.S. Open with a firm standing as the best player of his generation. Only 20, blessed with a 6-foot-4 body and the athleticism of a soccer star, he seemed ready to rule the tennis world for years. That afternoon in Flushing Meadows, Safin had been Harper Lee writing To Kill a Mockingbird, the Band recording Music From Big Pink. He hadn't yet cashed the $800,000 winner's check when the world started wondering what this force of nature might do for an encore.
THE EXPECTATION HAS ALMOST RUINED HIM. HE WON his first major too early, too easily, too perfectly, Safin believes now. It changed his way of looking at the world. After that, it wasn't enough merely to win. What he had to do, he understood, was to reach that transcendent level again and again, especially in the biggest matches. Every time out, he had to paint a masterpiece.
"Because I played such a perfect match against Sampras, I feel like every time I'm in a final, every time I have a difficult match, I should play the same way," he says. "If I'd lost to him that day, it would have changed everything. I wouldn't get so frustrated. with myself now and say, 'How the hell? I'm playing so nutsty.'"
And that, Safin says, explains why his game can come to a screeching halt in the middle of matches he's capable of winning, occasionally even when he's up a set. He may be the only player in tennis history prone to tanking for aesthetic reasons. alone. "It's exactly why I gave up on so many matches in the past," he admits. "Not because I didn't care about tennis, but because I was too hard on myself I played a bad game, I wasn't satisfied, even if I won it. I would say, 'Forget this, I'm terrible. I should just quit.'"
Such self-criticism is in his blood. SafIn's mother, Rausa Islanova, is a tennis coach who was schooled in the severe Soviet system. Positive reinforcement was not its motivational tool of choice. Tennis was a chore for Safin from the start, a household duty like cleaning his room or taking out the garbage. "I didn't care to play tennis, didn't really like it," he says, but he understood that it was a way out of the dreary communist lifestyle.
"I had my chance to become somebody by playing tennis," he says. "My mother said, 'No, darling, you're not going to play soccer because the coach isn't going to care enough and it won't get you anywhere. But I know tennis. I will teach you.'"
After the fall of communism, Safin was sent to Valencia, Spain, to live and train. Arriving at age 13, he attended night school with adults who didn't speak Spanish. He never integrated himself into the culture. He wishes now that he had; Spanish players, he notices, take their losses easier. They lose, they learn, they assimilate, they move on. Russians, like him, throw racquets on the court and brood about their careers off it.
"The Russian system is really strong," Safin says. "And to us, from the time we are kids, it has been, 'You have to.' Every match, you have to win. YOU HAVE TO, YOU HAVE TO, YOU HAVE TO, YOU HAVE TO. It's pushing, pushing, pushing, until you start to hate the coach because he's pushing too much. You say, 'Leave me alone for a couple of days,' and instead he says, 'More, more, more.' And it stays in your head, your unconscious. YOU HAVE TO, YOU HAVE TO. You can't get it out. I cannot speak bad about Mom, but that is the system. It kills you, You want to explode."
Sometimes he does explode, spiking his racquet like a football. Then he heads off to a long dinner or a club. "To stop thinking about everything going on in my head, I go to have a good time," he says. His female retinue, an ever-changing parade of busty blondes whom observers have dubbed the Safinettes, has often been in evidence through the years, a personal cheerleading squad. If the blondes were occasionally distracting, well, that was the idea. "Anything to stop the voice," he says.
You can see the same mentality etched into the career of Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Russia's top player before Safin. To Kafelnikov, now 30 and living in Moscow, merely showing up at a tournament counted as a victory for an emerging capitalist. And that's what he did week after week, treating Wimbledon the same as Tashkent or Rotterdam, putting in the hours as if he were a welder in his hometown of Sochi, working on the communist clock.
Safin is more soulful than that, but less efficient. He's more painter than welder, motivated less by winning than by the artistry he might achieve along the way. "Do it nice, in a nice way," he says. "A bit of beauty." He sees Kafelnikov's career, which despite two major titles seemed to be as much about postmatch tee times as tournament wins, as a cautionary tale. "The Russian mentality killed Kafelnikov," he says. "I hope it doesn't happen to me."
Yet Safin has fallen victim to the Western lifestyle in much the same way Kafelnikov did: He treats tennis as a job. Put in your time, and then the day is your own. Kafelnikov escaped to golf sometimes playing between a semifInal and a final. Safin is more social: "'This week, let's have a few dinners, let's go to the bar, have a few drinks, maybe practice tomorrow a little bit slower.'" He refuses to scout his opponents or watch a match of any kind. "I have enough troubles with my own tennis," he says.
The approach is refreshingly different from the monomaniacal intensity that most top players give to their careers, and Safin is almost talented enough to pull it off Until last year, when he hurt his wrist in Australia and didn't get it operated on until July, he seemed to float effortlessly in the Top 10. It made lesser players; wonder what he might accomplish if he were to apply himself and the best players on the tour grateful that he doesn't. "I can't understand it," Roddick says, "but that's what makes him so intriguing. I just hope he takes a day off each time he plays me."
Yet Safin believes he is maximizing his talents. "I'm not like the other guys," he says. "My head is different. If I would do it the normal way-wake up in the morning, practice, have lunch at the club, practice again, go to the gym-I'd give up after one month. I'd say, 'Take the racquets, thank you very much. I'll do another job."
TENNIS GIVES PLAYERS THE OPPORTUNITY TO REINVENT themselves every week or so. The setting for each tournament is different, the circumstances unique. Still, inertia maintains a powerful hold. Players who are winning usually continue to win; those who are losing find ways to lose.
Two hours after losing to Roddick at Indian Wells, Safin was still sitting in the players' lounge, brooding in three tenses, past, present, and future. In 2002, he recalled, he was first in the ATP points race through June. He was playing the most consistently fine tennis of his career. He had reached the final of the Australian Open and the semifinals of the French. "And then I had a very bad loss to Olivier Rochus at Wimbledon, and it killed my confidence," he said. "I couldn't play well for months."
He hoped that wasn't happening now, but he sensed the bad breaks coming. Before this season, Safin had announced his intention to compete for the No. I ranking he held for nine weeks in 2000 and 2001. While recovering from the torn ligaments in his wrist, he'd cleansed his soul in the wilds of Yosemite. He spent weeks working with Denis Golovanov, his sixth coach in four years, then pronounced himself in the best shape of his life. And when he beat Agassi in a five-set Australian Open semifinal, playing probably his best match since the win over Sampras more than three years earlier, he convinced the tennis world. "I was almost at my highest, he was almost at his highest," he said. "It was fun."
But Safin's attention span is short, and the season long. By March, he seemed to be right back where he'd been in previous years. Since beating Agassi, he'd won only two of eight matches, beginning with a straight-set loss to Roger Federer in the Australian final. He'd been saddled with unfortunate draws-Federer at Dubai, Roddick at Indian Wells-and his precariously balanced psyche could handle only so much misfortune."'Im feeling the game too much, living with the game too much," he concluded. "When you want something too much, it doesn't come to you. When you lose interest in it, it will. You have to let it go. If it's meant to be yours, it will be yours."
So he packed his bags and headed to Key Biscayne, where he lost his first match, to Vince Spadea. Then he left for Europe's clay courts, where he fired Golovanov and hired yet another coach, Peter Lundgren, who'd been the architect of Federer's rise. Safin's 2004 French Open, which ended before the quarterfinals, will be remembered more for a decision to drop his shorts. during a match than for the bursts of inspired play that made a second major title seem a distinct possibility early on. As it so often does with Safin, his future seems in doubt. He could explode, implode, even disappear. Who can say? "He has the game that should have been on top for a long time now," Agassi says, "and that's still capable of being on top for along time to come. It's pretty much a guess because we're trying to look into what makes a person tick."
Yet, Safin can't be written off Just when it seems he's lost all motivation, he plays a match-or even a game or two-that sets the reel of Flushing Meadows 2000 spooling through people's minds all over again. They can't help it. Seeing him turn a defensive half-volley into a winner or hit a passing shot off one foot, as he did at Indian Wells against Roddick, makes anyone who appreciates good tennis yearn for more. That includes Safin, who only wishes he could work that magic each time he takes the court. Then the voices would quiet, and he could be at peace.
Find peace Marat and soon. Youth is no longer on your side and 30 approaches too fast. You have too much talent not to win at least 5 GS titles!
If I have 3 wishes for tennis next year it would be as follows.
1) Marat returns to the top of the tennis 3 at number 2/3 by winning 2 Grandslams and 2 TMS events
2) Federer wins the French Open.
3) Gasquet reaches full command of his considerable talent and gets to 2/3 in the world winning the other GS that hasn't been won by Marat and Roger!
I can but dream