‘Mk' magazine August 1999 (Part 1)
Marat Safin has paid his taxes, yet is still ignored here.
"What is present happiness without money?" Marat Safin
"If tomorrow all the newspapers put my name instead of Safin, it will be a mistake", admitted Yevgeny Kafelnikov after a quarterfinal. And his comment is valid. Not even tennis experts could have foreseen that after two victories and two defeats for Russia during the Davis Cup, that Russia's rescuer would drop out. Marat Safin and Dominik Hrbaty had fought for three and a half hours. Just as the Slovaks began seriously discussing which drink to celebrate with -Russian Vodka or Czech Beer- Safin did the impossible and removed the Slovak doubles team in the semifinal. "During the match, I had no desire to play," admitted Safin, "But I felt on course.....how it worked, I don't know. It was simply necessary."
By the way, Marat began his ascension to the heights of tennis right from the word go. Having lost in the first round of last years Davis Cup to American Jim Courier, an 18 year old Muscovite, then ranked 170 in the world, forced the tennis world to sit up and take notice. Perhaps in the history of this sport, there has been no other player who's glory and popularity came about through defeat rather than success. Marat is philosophical about his loss; " The main thing is, I was only a step away from victory and I was playing on equal terms with Jim Courier." In these few words, the main attraction of Russia's new tennis generation, is summed up.
Q. Marat, after last years meeting with Jim Courier, he literally jumped for joy after beating you, and you've even beaten Andre Agassi. How do you manage to defeat a quiet and constrained American?
M. Probably with my game. It was a match of mighty powers, Russia v USA, and everyone could tell that every point brought us closer to the result of this destined meeting. I admit, I was disappointed that I couldn't overcome Courier . But I don't try to parade my emotion in front of my opponent, even if I win. You see it in other players, and so it is hard [to deal with]. It's not necessary to behave like this in order to win. That's why Dominik Hrbaty and I were a little more cautious in our on-court behaviour.
Q. Do you have an inferiority complex when you duel with more titled contenders?
M. Not now. But it was present earlier. Even when I met Russia's fifth seed I was trembling. But in the course of time it passed. Why should I fear someone? You see, we play one game and it's possible to beat anyone. Besides you shouldn't be afraid of mistakes. When you play strong opponents, you collect skill much quicker.
Q. Is it difficult to make your way into the tennis elite when you first begin?
M. It is much harder to stay in this company. To make your way into this clique is difficult but not impossible. And to stay there.....it takes a lot of work.
Q. What qualities does a player need for this? Talent is not enough, is it?
M. First, you need your head on your shoulders. And second, a tennis player should know what he wants and how to go about getting it.
Q. Becoming a tennis elite member have you felt the ‘tusovki'?
M. Not according to the nature of ‘tusovki'. A lot of it is unimportant to me and I don't demand much from others.
[ I can't translate this word, any help would be appreciated in understanding this question and answer]
Q. Is there a hierarchy between players? Can, for example, a 100 ranked player approach and openly talk with the first ranked player?
M. Yes, in general, there's no hierarchy, and there are no rules about this. Anything is possible. If you are interested in talking to someone, then why not? As for me personally, I try not to impose myself on others. We greet all players, we respect each other. But each of us has our own circle of friends.
Q. Are you a private person?
M. Yes. Though only with certain people. I'm not a supporter of pointless chatter with just anybody. But if there is an issue or a question, why not talk? To tell the truth, there are certain limits. I won't be as frank with a stranger as I am with friends.
Q. You've never thought about another career? For example, a basketball player because of your height?
M. Honestly, basketball doesn't interest me. I've always had a dream of playing for Spartak Moscow because I wanted to become a football player. I was 6 years old when I went to the trials for Spartak's junior soccer team. But I wasn't approached because I was too small.
M. Yes. [Back then] In a gymnastics class, I was somewhere in the middle.
Q. Having read this, they will regret what's happened?
M. Maybe. I didn't seriously consider the "bridal-shows". [possibly ‘trials' or ‘auditions'] I needed to be prepared better, that's necessary. And then I was switched to tennis, because there I had more chances, and mum knew people, trainers. It's more important that attention is focussed on you and you've had good instructors. Without money and contacts, sometimes you will get nowhere.
Q. So Marat, it was then that the decision to move to Spain was made? Were your mothers own experiences useful to you then?
M. The lessons my mum gave me (Rausa Islanova was part of the USSR' modular tennis scheme: O.E) at that time, I was past that stage. Besides mum should remain mum, instead of a coach. The coach can't be two things at once.
M. It's important. The coach is not just an assistant in the sport, they are a friend, the man's company. And with women, everything is more complex, and you don't behave as freely. Eventually you'll find there are certain issues you can't discuss with them. My parents, correctly, sent me to Spain at 14. They gave me a chance to decide destiny for myself. I had to learn responsibility and independence.
Q. And why Spain?
M. That is the way it turned out. In Spain we found a club, sponsors and it was decided that if I liked it there, I would stay. As you can see, I haven't left yet.
Q. Were there any moments when you felt like giving
up and going home?
M. Certainly there were. I called home and complained to my parents, telling them I wanted to come home. But that's normal, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. I didn't know the language, I didn't know anyone, and I didn't understand the people. But in due course, everything worked out, I just had to bear it out.
Q. But to have an overwhelming motivation is necessary?
M. I knew what I wanted. And then you can cope with life's difficulties. Otherwise, you'll never learn to be a man. It's a law [of life].
Q. Tell me about the elderly Spaniard who gave you an apartment, and was crazy about the Russian boy and his [old fashioned] upbringing.
M. Yes, I'm a normal person. Remember the saying; " Be easy going, and others will be drawn to you". Some think that tennis players are such abrupt guys, all puffed up and too arrogant to talk to anybody. It's not true.
Q. Do you still rent a room?
M. No, I've just bought an apartment. I'm going to move. The house is in one of the best areas of Valencia. I like this place, though. 15th floor. It's a good kind of home.
Q. Isn't it hot?
M. It's got air conditioning.
Q. So, it's high and cool.
M. More importantly, it's quiet and cosy. Where you live is unimportant, you should enjoy your life.
Q. Will your parents lodge with you?
M. No, they rent an apartment in the city. My sister Dinara lives with them. She also plays tennis, but she trains at a different club.
Q. In Russia, are there poor conditions for training top quality players?
M. It's probably true, but it's also very insulting. To become a good player, you have to participate in a lot of tournaments, but that means being sponsored. Also good courts are needed for training and that is especially important. You also need training partners, and they basically work abroad.
Q. What does tennis mean to you: Work, a hobby, pleasure, or a way of earning money?
M. Work from which I receive pleasure. And money comes with it.
Q. In your opinion, is the saying "You can't buy happiness" true?
M. And without money?
Q. I also ask you..........
M. It's all relative. What's present happiness without money? Money gives more opportunities. That's it.
Q. Pavel Bure said that if Russia's taxes were lower, he would pay them and live here. Do you agree with him?
M. And I pay taxes here. And I'm somehow all the same. Pay taxes and sleep quietly. I sleep as if killed. [meaning unclear]
Q. Quite often, surnames of well known people become synonymous with the country they were born in. Do you have feelings of pride or shame for your native land?
M. I think, whoever said it, there are two great powers. Russia and America. Whatever happened in Russia, you [as a Russian] are associated with it. I ignore all the insults and retorts, and I'm proud that I am Russian.
Q. Having lived in Spain for 5 years, who do you feel you are? A Russian, a Spaniard, or a world citizen?
M. Definitely Russian. I am and always will be. Here is where I belong. Though in Spain, I have fitted in. I know it's a compliment to the Spaniards, but not to me.
Q. Have there been times when you've been accepted/mistaken for a Spaniard?
M. There were. But I'm generally completely different to Spaniards. And then there's still the accent.
Q. But in Valencia, you've learned first hand in the street?
M. Valencia - it's not a village. Almost a million inhabitants. There are places for me to learn things head on, face to face, that mould me into a person.
Q. So Spain hasn't weakened you. Is it necessary to make a reputation?
M. Why? I don't limit myself in anything. If I want it, I do it. I'm not concerned with other people's opinion's. I'm only interested in what my coach and my relatives think of me. I'm not treasured by everyone.
Q. Marat, it is considered that the current generation of Russian tennis players are not so concerned with the concepts of ‘The Homeland' and patriotism, and therefore, don't always agree to play for their country, for example, Anna Kournikova. What does this mean to you?
M. I love the native land, and I play for Russia with pleasure. I always knew that I wanted to because I was born in Russia. Where you live abroad or which country you play for - France, Spain or America - if your surname is Ivanov, Petrov or Wolves, despite your successes, you will always be a stranger in that country. No matter how many friends you have there.
Q. And to live like that is psychologically hard?
M. For some. I personally would like, for example, to play for the Slovaks. I've lived in Spain for a few years now, and the Spanish players relate well to me. But all the same, I don't feel as comfortable there as I do here in Moscow with the guys. The team have an excellent relationship. All of us with each other. We are not simply players who are on the same national team, we are friends, close people.
Q. And what is your relationship with Anna Kournikova like?
M. We didn't see each other for a long time. We don't see each other often, we're never in the same place for long enough.
Q. Does her decision to receive an American passport and to support the American tennis program concern you?
M. Each to their own. Anna probably knows what she is doing.
Q. Marat, what do you like and dislike about your own character?
M. I'm lazy. Always have been, but when the time comes, I can rouse myself. And what is good about me? Difficult to say. I've never hurt a soul, I try to be frank, that's possibly a plus.
Q. Where did you get such a rare name?
M. My grandmother named me. Marat is a really rare name, maybe the most beautiful, the way it sounds, so I'm unique amongst other players.
Q. What do you hate doing?
Q. Finish this phrase; "Love is..."
M. A difficult question. In my opinion, love is trust.
Q. I envy your girlfriend, then.
M. Well, maybe. You can't talk about love if there's no trust. You see, tennis players need a lot of trust, and it often goes. [OR: They are often away, so they need trust.]
Q. Tell us a little about Silvia.
M. She wanted to be a tennis player too, but she had to stop playing because of a knee injury. We had the same trainer for physical training, and that's how we got acquainted.
Q. Is it easy to trust her?
M. I trust her completely. Silvia supports me in everything. I can tell her all the things that I can't tell my coach or my parents. It's certain she will always understand me.
Q. Are you a determined person?
Q. And what's your dream away from sports?
M. It's difficult to say. While I live in the moment, I don't like to think about the future.
Interview by Olga Ermolina.
*Translated by Ruth*