From Russia with lust

Pro tennis. That's the one where you devote your entire life to training and playing, day in, day out, to the exclusion of all else, right? Marat Safin - singles guy - begs to differ.
Profile by Suzi Petkovski

Marat Safin is vicarious living for lads. There's his instant-gratification power game - wham bam, thank you linesmen. The regular raquet game - 48 frames in his "best" year. The back-chatting to umpires and crashing of tournament courtesy cars. Last but not least, the bevy of barely dressed blondes at the Australian Open who looked like they were auditioning for Boogie Nights II. Don't you want his life?

Stories about Safin? Yeah, sure, say the tour functionaries, let us get back to you with some printable ones. Safin travels with a floating cast of characters, not all of them wholesome. He claims to practise two hours a day tops and spend the rest of his time frequenting beaches, movie theatres, nightclubs and restaurants. Handsome, famous, talented and a multimillionaire, Safin feasts from life's head table. "Good or bad," he says, "I try to eat everything."

If only Safin's lust for the game matched his love for life. The 22-year-old Muscovite could make life very interesting for world No 1 Lleyton Hewitt. Post-Wimbledon, Pat Rafter pronounced Hewitt the Tiger Woods of tennis, a stand-out favourite in every tournament he contests. If there's one player who threatens Hewitt's dominance, who has the weapons to blast him off the court, knock off his US Open crown this month and install himself as No 1, it's the enigmatic Russian. If he ever gets his head together. Granted, that's a very big "if".

Safin is a 193cm colossus who would look at home guarding the Kremlin, Kalashnikov in hand. Except that he'd probably be pointing it at his own foot. The world No 2 has inherited Goran Ivanisevic's mantle as tennis's favourite multiple-personality. You never know which Marat's going to show. There's Safin the intimidating, who plays ennis with a vapour trail. And there's Safin the exasperating, who sinks to desultory defeat. Take the Australian Open final last January. After whacking Sampras in the fourth round, Safin sweated, scraped and clawed past Tommy Haas in a protracted, difficult semi. The clear favourite in the final against Thomas Johansson, he stayed with the script for one set, then faded in four. Blithely unconcerned, Safin pronounced the day a success - "You have to enjoy the moment" - and hastily departed for 22nd birthday celebrations with his rock-star entourage. What's Russian for "Who-gives-a-damn?" "I reached the final of a Grand Slam," Safin reflected, "and sure, it's disappointing not to win, but what am I supposed to do? Lock myse;f in a room and cry?"

A second-round loser at Wimbledon, Safin was again anaesthetised to the pain of defeat. Seeded second behind Hewitt, he entered the All England Club with the best Grand Slam win tally this year (11-2) but was ousted in four by world No 50 Olivier Rochus. "I couldn't find my game today," he lamely lobbed. "Is bad day at the office."

Not only is Safin nonchalant in defeat; he doesn't care to learn from his losses either. "It happens," Safin shrugged at Wimbledon. "You cannot do anything but say 'Well done, good luck for the rest of the tournament.' You cannot start thinking, 'What I did wrong? What I did good?' It happens, that's it, it's over."

What makes these displays so insulting is that the guy has the biggest game in tennis. At the 1998 French Open, Safin made arguably the most impressive Grand Slam debut in tennis history, upending Andre Agassi and defending champion Gustavo Kuerten in successive matches. Two summers ago in New York, he had Flushing Meadows reverberating with future shock after obliterating Pete Sampras in the US Open final. The fading champion was reminded of his own Grand Slam arrival on the same court exactly a decade before. "He could be No 1 if he wants it," said the shell-shocked Sampras. "He's a big, strong guy and he's got all the tools. Being No 1 and staying there is a different ball game but he's got the potential to do that."

Prophetic words. Withing a few weeks, having amassed a tour-best seven tournaments in 2000, Safin made history as the youngest man atop the computer rankings, though he didn't stay there. Still, it was a stunning reversal of his earl-season form, when he was fined for tanking in the first round at the Australian Open, endured the bleakest slump of his career and even considered quitting.

The question at that breakthrough US Open was always whether Safin could maintain his dominant form. Few are surprised at his mixed progress since. Safin himself left a clue that his first Slam victory had taken him by surprise. Asked during the trophy presentation how he managed to manhandle the Sampras serve so well, the young behemoth replied: "You think I know?"

In a wretched 2001 season that saw his ranking fall from two to 22, Safin was quick to point to the back, knee and rib troubles that marred his year. An ill-advised raquet change resulted in a lawsuit and an eventual return to his old Head stick. Others attribute the backslide to mental, as much as physical, fragility.
"It was frightening how well he played to win the US Open," observes John Newcombe. "The following year, it's like he couldn't stand the pressure of everyone thinking he was that good - including himself."

Safin promised better things in 2002. "I'm more prepared," he vowed at the start of the year. "I'm ready to play and I'm ready to compete for No 1" Yet, the world No 2 began the North American hardcourt season with zero tournament wins this year. What's up with that?

"Me, I'm not a complete nutcase," Safin said with a laugh, in a conference call late in July. "I'm just different. Some people don't understand. Sometimes when I'm losing I have to push myself, I have to break raquet or hit the ball out of the court. It helps me." Is he stung by talk that he's squandering his talent? "It hurts, of course it hurts." Is he going to curb the on-court antics? "It's just the way I am. I'm going to change myself when I'm 22?" he asks, rhetorically.

Safin is content to ride his prodigious talent rather than work it. It all comes down to that elusive confidence. "It's like love. When you look too hard, you don't find it" It's also a cop-out for not working harder. Mats Wilander, the Swedish great who was Safin's coach for most of 2001, says: "You always have to try to change your game and improve some things. He has a bit of an attitude that 'I'm good enough to win Grand Slams, so I'll keep on doing what I'm doing'. He isn't motivated to improve as other players are. If you want to change anything in your game, you have to do it between 19 and 22. That's where Safin is now. If he doesn't do it now, he'll always be the same player, a great player but unfortunately not another Sampras or Agassi."
"There's some weakness in his volleys and other parts of the court," adds Newcombe. "He won't improve on those unless he does the extra hard yards. If you don't put in the hours, you'll be found out on the big occasions."

On court, too, Safin isn't the hardest worker. "I have to push myself to work hard and fight in a match," he admits. More than half of Safin's career losses have been straight-sets, crash-and-burn affairs. Runs of first-round losses are another career signature. Although the scorelines in 2002 have been more respectable (no first round exit in 17 events), players know that Safin's game can suddenly go from stupendous to stupid.
Nowhere is Safin's undisciplined approach highlighted more than in his coaching arrangement, which has all the organisation of a train wreck. Why was Wilander, a triple Australian Open champion, skiing in Idaho last January while his charge fell at the last hurdle in Melbourne, watched by several guys wearing coach tags and, of course, the mandatory blondes? Mused Wilander: "I didn't decide to stop coaching Marat. We were supposed to go to Australia. I think he didn't feel he needed to have me there, or wanted to have me there."
Word was that Safin was paying huge money for Wilander's services - something like $US320,000 for 16 weeks work ($US20,000 per week). He may have decided the return didn't justify the investment. Why pay for even the best advice if you're not going to take it?

Safin's fair-weather attitude sure doesn't give a coach a lot to work with. "A player like Safin will go through a lot of coaches," Newcombe observes. "It's hard to put your heart and soul into a guy like that." Indeed, Safin is a one-man job centre for coaches. He burned through three in 2000 alone. Lately Safin has travelled with semi-retired Swiss pro and neighbour Marc Rosset, a fellow genial-giant who knows how to enjoy himself off-court.

At age 14, as soon as his tennis-playing parents found him a sponsor, Safin left his family in Moscow and, without speaking a word of Spanish, moved to Valencia to further his tennis. He says the transfer was the toughest thing he ever did. Isolated and immersed in tennis, the teenage years in Spain left several marks. Safin ressembles a wild child who bucks authority and defiantly does it all his own way. The reliance on a large supporter group - "My family" as Safin refers to his entourage - could well be a legacy of those years, when he lacked the support of his real family. Friends are now at the top of Safin's personal ranking system - "They are everything," he says.

The extensive Safin entourage is unusual in tennis. Observing the expanding cast of characters in Melbourne this year, Alex Metreveli, Safin's countryman and '73 Wimbledon finalist, said Safin is confused about who to have around him. "They're friends for a week while he is doing well," he remarked. Newcombe sees it as proof that "He's yet to develop the art of being uncompromising in an effort to maximise his potential. Whatever he achieves, he wants to have a good time on the way." No argument there from Safin. He won't be switching to a monastic lifestyle anytime soon. "If you're satisfied in your life out of the court, you play much better inside the court," he reasons.

Force-fed tennis throughout his teenage years, for Safin now, nothing is more horrifying than a life committed to the game. Nyet to that. "It would be the biggest mistake in my life," he declares. "No way. I love tennis but I like to enjoy my life. It would be a pity to spend probably the best years of my life just living with tennis. Definitely not. I don't think you have to destroy your life just because of tennis. Is boring. Is very boring. I am 22 years old. I am living right on Miami Beach. I am having so much fun. Why I have to change my way of life? I love it. Sorry." He's had all the pain; now for the gain.

In a heavily stage-managed sport, Safin, with his movie-star looks, chattiness with the press and sly sense of humour, is a welcome charismatic presence. He can never be accused of taking himself, or the tennis caper, too seriously. He's popular with his peers. "I get along with everyone," he proudly reports. "We compete, then we leave the court and we are friends. Just because I play you, I have to hate you? No."

Safin would be even more popular if he developed a hatred for losing (a la Hewitt), played the part of the tennis giant instead of the tennis playboy and engaged Hewitt in a serious battle for the top spot. Hewitt-Safin has the makings of a ripping rivalry. The classic David and Goliath showdown. The pair could hardly be more different - in strengths, stature or approach. Safin the king-hitter versus Hewitt the counter-puncher.

Thunderous serve versus lightning return. Mind versus muscle, concentration versus inspiration. The biggest player versus the best competitor. Currently locked at three-all, the rivalry's progression depends a lot more on Safin. He'll need to lift his professional commitment if he is to make regular finals appointments with the fantastically single-minded and dependable Hewitt.

They've split two matches this year; the Australian taking a third-set tiebreak decision in Miami and Safin squaring up on German clay 6-3 6-1 - the most clear-cut scoreline in their six meetings. Hewitt needed four sets to win their first meeting, in the '99 Davis cup semi-final on grass in Brisbane. Newcombe was courtside as captain, and what sticks in his memory is Safin's poor approach to the match, on his weakest surface. "He'd lost the plot," Newk recalls. "He was pretty average; not enjoying himself and very down on himself. Here was this immense talent who wasn't making the most of it. You hate to see that."

Late in 2001, Hewitt one-upped the Russian, taking the US Open title and his place in history as the youngest man atop the rankings (at 20 years and eight months, bettering Safin by a mere month). Unlike Safin, however, Hewitt held on to the No 1 position.

Ths Us Open this month is the perfect stage for a rematch. "There, we're going to see who's pretending to be No 1 and who has more chances [to stay there]," vows Safin. "I would like to finish this year No 1. It would be a big honour. I want it." While he respects Hewitt - "He's tough to beat. He's really consistent, he doesn't lose his mind, doesn't make any mistakes, very good anticipation, very fast" - Safin doesn't view the feisty Australian as a dominant No 1. "There is not a 100 percent No 1 like Sampras was," according to Safin. "Of course, we have Hewitt, he is a great player but playing against him, we know we have a chance. If we're fighting, we know we can beat him."

"Who knows with him?" responds Hewitt. "He can blow anyone away on any given day. Like when he beat Sampras at the Australian Open - that was one of the most incredible matches I've seen. When he's on, he's the No 1, 2 or 3 player in the world. Marat is tough to play because I feel he's getting better and better at the areas he's had slight weaknesses in. He's more aggressive. He come to the net a lot more now. I think he's becoming a more all-court player. It's just really tough to find too many weaknesses in his game."

That's because the weaknesses aren't in Safin's game; they're in his head. And until he decides to put it all on the line, he'll only be the ultimate singles player OFF the court. Will Safin one day regret his profligate ways? "Who knows," says Newcombe, "whether he'll stay an up-and-down guy, or whether he'll put his head down for four years to see what he can achieve. He himself probably doesn't know the answer."

Give it a go, Marat. More success in the Slams would mean even more love from the fans. And, even better, they'll respect you the next day.

( thanks to Emily for typing it :-) )