A joy to enjoy

WATCHING Marat Safin play tennis is like riding a rollercoaster in the dark: it's much more fun because you don't know what is going to happen next. Take the third set of Safin's fourth round match against Pete Sampras. Safin was set to blitz the tie at two sets to love and with all the momentum of the Trans-Siberian express. But a couple of line calls went against him, he lost touch and concentration, and what could have been a demolition turned into a derby.

Take the numerous moments throughout the past fortnight when Safin has stopped a ball with his head, foot or (at least once) his backside. Take the moment in the otherwise unremarkable match against Mikhail Youzhny, when Safin casually flicked a ball into a line umpire, sparking a code violation and one of the more fearsome on-and-off-court tirades Melbourne Park has witnessed.

Safin is often angry, he is sometimes out of control, but he is always entertaining. He has been alternately jeered and cheered by the crowds at the Australian Open, but he has copped a pounding from selected portions of the media. What makes the slightly moralistic criticism unleashed at him hard to bear is that Safin clearly spends a lot of his interview time (and quite a lot of his tennis time) with his tongue firmly tucked inside his cheek.

"I need to find the motivation, you know, against Sampras. That's why I brought so many blondes here tonight," he said after their epic.

Safin ups his fans' value for money by the added extras he brings to his already deluxe edition game. He is fond of showing off his soccer skills, even at the most critical moments of a match. He sometimes produces a skip only matched by the unmatchable Andrew Ilie to step into his backhand.

Of course there is a downside to Safin - the times when his tongue and his cheek refuse to associate with each other. The mist that hovers over him like a small red cloud is best exemplified by his outrage at being warned during the match against Youzhny. Safin's actions should not be excused - if, as reported, he told American umpire Norm Chryst that he was "f___ed in the head". His obvious display of contempt for Chryst after the match ("How can I respect him if he doesn't respect me?") also deserved condemnation. But it is worth pointing out that Safin has a history with Chryst and that - on this occasion - he looked particularly hard done by. He deserved a fine, but not a character assassination in the press.

A sombre under current to the 2002 Australian Open has been talk of the growing unpopularity of tennis around the world. No Swedish media outlet sent a correspondent for this tournament despite the presence of four male Swedes, including eventual quarter-final opponents Thomas Johansson and Jonas Bjorkman. Johansson took umbrage to a poll in his homeland that did not rate a single Davis Cup squad in Sweden's top 10 sports teams of the century. Safin has said that Russian tennis is slowly gaining ground, but still no Russian media saw fit to track the likes of Safin, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Youzhny, Elena Dementieva, Elena Likhovtseva or Anna Kournikova at Melbourne Park. Even Australian tennis feels in need of a pick-me-up, with Lleyton Hewitt and Mark Philippoussis leading a swag of disappointments this grand slam: the first since Pat Rafter retired. On Friday, Joshua Eagle and Scott Draper were named in our Davis Cup squad to face Argentina.

Take Sampras and Andre Agassi out of the picture in a couple of year's time and it's easy to imagine American fans jumping ship in similar fashion to the Swedes. And this is where Safin comes in.

The ATP's New Balls Please generation is promising in a tennis sense - Tommy Haas, Hewitt and Roger Federer may dominate the men's game over the next decade or so. But tennis needs more than quality competitors - it needs a shot in the arm. Safin is not Yannick Noah, and neither is he John McEnroe. But he is a little bit of both, and right now he is exactly what men's tennis needs.