Everybody loves Marat

Safin's confidence is the key
by Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated
Monday February 04, 2002

Marat Safin is at once perhaps the most entertaining and most infuriating player to watch. He can dominate (see the 2000 U.S. Open) or disappear (last week's Australian Open final), but the key to his success, he tells SI's Jon Wertheim, is his confidence. Attractive women help, too.

We'll grant you that it's no small condition. But if Marat Safin put his mind to it, there's little doubt he could be the best player in tennis today. He has the requisite booming serve. His groundstrokes are smooth, efficient -- almost elegant -- but they yield heat-seeking missiles. He's an above-average athlete. He plays well on all surfaces and, having just turned 22, he is entering his prime years. Safin's problem -- and he'll be the first to admit this -- is that his confidence and his focus are like tenants in a time share. Sometimes they're around. Other times, they'll go months without making an appearance.

In Australia, Safin was well on his way to a second Grand Slam title, euthanizing Pete Sampras in the Round of 16, gladly accepting Wayne Ferreira's retirement in the quarters, and coming back after a fortuitous rain delay to beat Tommy Haas in a five-set semifinal. Then he was unable to summon his focus in the final and failed to put up much resistance against Thomas Johansson, a player Safin ought to have beaten with relative ease. As personable and nonchalant in defeat as he was in victory, Safin shrugged off the loss, thanked his "family" of attractive Models, Inc. types seated in his box, and made plans for the evening. "I reach the final of a Grand Slam and sure, it's disappointing not to win, but what am I supposed to do? Lock myself in a room and cry?" he asks. "I don't live my life like that. I love tennis, I want to be No. 1, but it's just a game."

The most laid-back player in tennis recently took time to chat with CNNSI.com.

CNNSI.com: First things first. What's the story with the entourage?

Safin: I need all the support I can get, my friend.

CNNSI.com: Fair enough. Six months ago, you were in the middle of a terrible slump. In Indianapolis, I asked you what was wrong and you said it was all a matter of confidence. "Anyone has a chance against me when my confidence is so low," you said. Now you're playing as well as ever. Just confidence?

Safin: Pretty much.

CNNSI.com: So where'd you find it?

Safin: It's like love. When you look too hard, you don't find it. When you let it happen naturally, it comes. I played badly for so long, then I played well in Indianapolis, made semifinals of the U.S. Open, and slowly, slowly it comes back.

CNNSI.com: How does a guy like you, a Grand Slam champion who has proven he can play at the highest level, let his confidence get so low?

Safin: [Points to head.] Losing can make you a little crazy. Then you start to doubt and it goes from there. People see us hitting balls for a few hours but they don't realize how tough tennis is. [Points to head again.]

CNNSI.com: You're a popular guy in the locker room. Who's your best friend out here?

Safin: Everybody. Everybody's great. We all get along. We go out to dinner or the bars, I get along with everyone. That's the thing with men's tennis. We compete. Then we leave the court and we are friends. We go to eat, we go to bars. Just because I play you in a match, I have to hate you? No.

CNNSI.com: Without naming names, there are some top players who clearly resent being celebrities and wish they were more anonymous. It seems like you don't mind being famous and all that comes with it. True?

Safin: I want to be happy, to enjoy, that's the most important thing. I don't want to say that I like being famous or that I look for it, but people recognize me or whatever, why would I not be nice to them? We have a good life here. If part of that means that I am recognized or people want my autograph, it's OK.

CNNSI.com: How much pressure do you younger guys feel to boost the popularity of men's tennis?

Safin: People are saying, 'Tennis is going down.' Of course it's going down because new people are coming up and no one knows us. But we'll keep winning, we'll get promoted and in one or two more years, it will be great. Five, six, seven years ago, it was Sampras-Agassi, Agassi-Sampras, Sampras-Agassi and no one else. Now I think there a lot of good players -- Lleyton Hewitt, Roger Federer, Guga, Ferrero -- and we could have many good matches.

CNNSI.com: You're willing to go along with it, the promotion?

Safin: Sure, I want to make tennis big again.

CNNSI.com: So you were in Australia with three guys wearing badges that said "Marat Safin: Coach" but your real coach, Mats Wilander, was in Idaho. What's up with that?

Safin: I just need somebody to motivate me. I need someone I will feel comfortable with who will make me work to win. For me, the motivation is the most important thing. Sure, a coach can make suggestions or tell me that I have a mistake in my grip or something, but it's mostly feeling comfortable that's important to me.

CNNSI.com: You've been saving your energy and only practicing for 45 minutes or so a day. What else do you do all day?

Safin: I watch TV, go to restaurants. I saw Ocean's Eleven. That was very good. Shallow Hal. That was the worst I ever saw. Terrible, horrible, disgusting movie. I think the director never watched it after he finished filming. Stupid movie.

CNNSI.com: So what lessons have you learned from the past to sustain this level of tennis and confidence?

Safin: You need to feel a little bit scared. Not feel fear, but know that anyone can beat you, that it's not like you can just go to the court and know you're going to win. You have to work. I know that confidence is fragile so I will try to hold it for a long time.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim covers tennis for the magazine and is a regular contributor to CNNSI.com.