Enigmatic Safin at his characteristic best

By Sandra Harwitt

From the time Marat Safin arrived in Australia, he made it know that he thinks the tennis season is way too long and the end-of-season vacation is way too short. For the '00 US Open champ, last year's season was longer than for most as he worked overtime, leading Russia to its first ever Davis Cup victory at the end of November.

Safin, a highly talented player sometimes accused of not always being focused on his tennis, said he wasn't ready for action this early in January. On Saturday, Safin finally decided to stop trying to play and walked away from playing a third round match, giving Ranier Schuettler of Germany a free pass into the fourth round of the Australian Open.

"My wrist is bothering me and I decided not to play," said Safin, a finalist in Melbourne last year. "In the first match, I fall down, and then I hit the backhand a little bit too late, and I felt some pain here. Afterwards, for the second match, they put me injection, so I didn't feel in the second match. Afterwards, at night, I had my wrist really big. Just I couldn't move it. So no reason to play."

Safin said he was advised by the doctor not to play and offered a very reasonable explanation for not trying to go forward, saying, "The year is just beginning. (This is) just one tournament, why would I destroy all my season? I prefer to stop now, even if it's a Grand Slam. Still the health is more important than the rest of the things."

When Safin arrived in Australia, he had no complaints about his wrist, but he was forced to pull out of the Sydney event the week before the Open with a shoulder injury and was taking anti-inflammatory medication. During his first two matches in Melbourne, he was taking painkillers to ease the pain from the shoulder.


For Safin, the early exit from the Australian Open has to be frustrating, especially after his failure to take the trophy at last year's tournament. Safin, who has long been touted as a given to be a multiple Grand Slam champion, was considered a shoo-in to defeat Thomas Johansson in last year's final. But as has happened to him in the past, Safin fell apart in that match, lost his way and failed to live up to his potential.

At the beginning of the Open, when asked about his hopes for this year in perspective to his disappointment 12 months ago in Melbourne, Safin sized up the situation clearly.

"Last year is history already пїЅ it was one year ago," he said. "This is another chance, another year, another tournament. I would like to do the same thing. It's difficult because it's another year. You are not playing the same tennis. The other people are not playing the same tennis. The situation is difficult. But I think I still have a great potential to do well here, and we'll see if I will be able to make it."

Now Safin knows he won't make it this year and needs to look ahead to the other three Grand Slams for glory making in 2003.

There's no denying that Safin is a great talent пїЅ most tennis pundits will tell you that he should be the No. 1 player in the world more than Lleyton Hewitt. But Hewitt has one important element that still seems to elude Safin пїЅ an unquenchable desire to succeed. The feisty Hewitt, attempting to become the first Australian since Mark Edmondson in 1976 to keep the Open trophy at home Down Under, never allows his desperation to win wane. Where Safin seems to run hot and cold when it comes to keeping his head and his desire in check, Hewitt never falters in his quest to win, win, win, at all costs.

For now, it will be a wait-and-see situation as to whether Safin will be able to live up to his potential in 2003 and score a second career Grand Slam title. One thing that tennis fans can be sure of is that however it turns out this season for the Russian, with Safin, it's guaranteed to be an entertaining journey.

Safin's early Australian Open departure opens his portion of the draw for the highly touted Swiss Roger Federer and 2002 Wimbledon finalist David Nalbandian, who will face each other in the fourth round for a shot at the quarterfinals.