Birthday Blues or Starting Anew?

by Denise Morris
27 January 2002

Today 27 January 2002 is Marat Safin's 22nd Birthday. Ideally it should have been a day of great celebration - all the ingredients were there. Highest seed left - previous Grand Slam winner - opponent several seeds below - he would be nervous - so Marat (unlike the last time he was in a Grand Slam Final) was the favourite. The pressure was on him to perform - would he do it?

He looked the picture of the perfect player - tall, muscled and handsome, hair cut very short - all those rippling muscles enough to cause any woman to catch her breath - whatever her age. His opponent shorter, quieter and nervous though didn't show it - the only sign a slight quiver of the lips - the only noise the vociferous blue and yellow clad Swedish supporters to spur him on.

The confident start to the first set - the break first game and then closing out the set thanks to a nervous start from the challenger - it all seemed to be going to plan.

Plan - what plan - the blue and yellow brigade didn't follow that plan. They made more noise and spurred their player on and Marat's birthday plans were falling into disarray.

All those brilliant returns were being undone - his backhand normally the strong point - more errors than winners. Whatever he tried somehow he couldn't unsettle the slight blonde man on the other side of the net. His legs pumped and he ran back and forth - but the challenger was the one who was getting the reward - where was the justice? It was Marat's birthday - he was supposed to win!

We all expected that fragile edge of his mental calm to crack and splinter any minute. But somehow he kept reasonably stable apart from an occasional slight rumble and an almost smash of the racquet. The anguished mouthing to his bench "What can I do - what must I do"? He didn't give up trying and fought back in the 4th set to a Tiebreak and then it was over. The face was set and the disappointment was there. But he walked up and congratulated the winner and didn't show what must have been his anguish at the end of what should have been a fairytale birthday.

And then we all saw the Presentation - Marat with a new maturity - a wonderfully gracious speech magnanimous in defeat. Thanking his "family", telling his vanquisher to enjoy his victory - smiling and acknowledging as the crowd sang "Happy Birthday" - the better man won says Marat - even congratulating the opposition coach and the blue and yellow sea of fans.

On that speech - Marat won the day. His opponent - the winner - sounded flat after that speech. But the biggest winner was the new, mature 22 year old who proved that he could take it on his cheek and come back fighting!

In these first few hours - yes it is birthday blues but to me the fact is this is the starting anew - this is the beginning of Marat's year and it is going places. The man we have admired for so long has grown up today. His tennis will get better and better and he will attain new and better heights in this year 2002.

Don't despair - the temperament may have mellowed slightly but it will still be there. But the newer and better Marat Safin is going to thrill us beyond anything we ever knew.

The best is yet to come!

Denise Morris
Spain 27.01.02