Enigmatic Safin at his characteristic best

By Nirmal Shekar
Hindustan Times
Melbourne, 16 January 2003

He seems to have stepped straight out of the pages of a Fyodor Dostoevsky novel. He is a creator and also a destroyer, hero and villain. In him reside, like constantly warring neighbours, blindingly brilliant light and utter darkness.

Neither his celebrated successes nor his equally well-publicised failures help resolve the enigma of Marat Safin's character; or even help us determine the place he'd likely occupy in the history of tennis.

Every match Safin plays is like a chapter out of one of Dostoevsky's classics. Chaos and order, hope and despair, powerful passion and cynical indifference...these are doubles team-mates hoping to produce a winning combination!

And the strange part is, however unlikely that these polar opposites appear capable of carrying their host to triumph and glory, the Tartan tornado somehow manages to live with them and find success at the highest levels of the game.

In the event, the Safin we saw at the Australian Open championship on Thursday пїЅ the one who blew hot and cold in beating a Spanish journeyman called Albert Montanes 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 in a second round match пїЅ was the Safin you are always more likely to see on a tennis court.

The big bear of a man made 53 unforced errors in a match in which his backhand took leave of him. His bazooka like forehand was better only in comparison.

Against a player world ranked 80, and one who has won just five Grand Slam matches in his career, Safin was often huffing and puffing, throwing his racquet, banging his forehead with the palm of his hand. As he made his way to the chair after gifting yet another service game and position of advantage to Montanes, you could see the preoccupied amble of a doomed man.

A better player than Montanes would have possibly taken advantage of all this. But while the Spaniard himself had nothing with which to trouble the Russian, Safin, for his part, cleaned up his act just in time.

Down 15-40 on serve in the sixth game of the third set, the 2000 U.S. Open champion finally played like the third best player in the game is expected to play, cracking winners like a kid living out his deepest fantasies, serving thunderbolts and closing out big points with authority.

After holding to 3-3 in the third, Safin, who said he has almost recovered 100 per cent from a shoulder injury, broke to 4-3 and then ran away with the fourth set showing a commanding presence at the net.