Safin self-destructs at French Open


By Selena Roberts

PARIS, June 2 - There is not a caution light or a warning signal to mark the moment when the talented Marat Safin will dissolve on the court. He does not ease into trouble as much as he plunges toward it.

Sometimes, a friendly crowd can awaken Safin, a 6-foot-4 giant, before it is too late. But inside a center court filled to capacity with flag-waving Frenchmen today and across from their local hero, Fabrice Santoro, he could not find the rip cord to save himself.

Safin's yearlong pattern of self-destruction continued in a third-round match at the French Open in which he revived and rallied but ultimately folded, losing by 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 0-6, 6-1, in Santoro's proudest moment.

Nothing could top the cheers for Santoro, though. While Santoro blew kisses to the French fans and lingered in the glory on court, the second-seeded Safin left without stopping for interviews.

It wasn't like the introspective Safin. He took a $10,000 fine rather than do what comes naturally for him: vent for therapy. Perhaps he is running dry on catharsis. At no point this season has he resembled the beaming young Russian who dismantled Pete Sampras to hoist the United States Open trophy.
Nine months ago, he promised nothing would change. No matter who wanted a piece of the 21-year-old player with the Abercrombie and Fitch looks and the personality of an advertiser's dream, Safin did not believe the attention would tinker with his normal life.

Somehow, it did. He has not been the same in nine months. Just when he seemed to outgrow his tempermental behavior in September - he broke 50 rackets early last year - he started imploding again. Although his coach, Mats Wilander, slaps a $100 fine on the prodigy for every racket he cracks this year, Safin can't keep his head.

"I respect Marat for what he accomplished last year, but he has to gro up as a mature person because the attitude is not quite professional," Yevgeny Kafelnikov said last week. "I'm strongly hoping that he is going to change his attitude and understand that sometimes the success, what he had before, it's in the past."

The past seems to be haunting Safin. The expectations have been crushing; his need to repeat his success has forced him to play with a bad back. Instead of taking time off, and losing out on a chunk of the $1.4 million bonus players receive for competing in the Master Series events, Safin has pushed onward. At times, he has played when he can barely launch into a serve, part of the reason for his so-so 15-13 record.

"People can criticize me and say I play for money, but if they knew what that meant and were in my situation, they would do the same thing," Safin said in Dusseldorf two weeks ago.

Safin grew up during a time of political transition in Russia. He was not as impoverished as many in Moscow, but he experienced the struggle of just making it through a day.

"There was nothing in the shops," Safin explained in an interview before the United States Open. "It was difficult to find even good cheese. To get sugar was a big problem."

He thinks like some Depression-era Americans. But Safin can't fully attribute his mediocre season to his inability to skip a month. Even Safin has admitted that his composure needs work. That is why he hired Wilander, who was supposed to bring him peace.

Today, Safin was anything but calm. Santoro simply outlasted Safin's short fuse.

The Frenchman put Safin on the run. With the ability to chase down Safin's pounding shots in the corner, Santoro stayed in the points. He waited patiently for his moment to strike, then repeatedly feathered drop shots that left Safin shaking his head.

For the first two sets, Safin could not compete. He winced and snarled and huffed in disgust. But down 4-2 in the third set, staring down a humiliating straight-set exit, Safin regrouped.

In a startling mental makeover as extreme as a before-and-after picture, he began crushing his groundstrokes deep against the baseline, forcing Santoro one way, then hitting the ball behind him.
Safin ran off 10 games in a row before his state of mind hit its expiration date. Abruptly, he fell apart.

With a shaky backhand into the bottom of the net during the third game of the fifth set, Safin's serve was broken. He never recovered.

Maybe Kafelnikov was right. Maybe Safin hasn't matured, after all.

"I don't care," Safin had said on Thursday, laughing off Kafelnikov's observations. "I think it's O.K., his opinion. But in my opinion, I'm satisfied with my life. I'm satisfied with my age. Maybe my brain is a little bit less than 21 years old, but I think that makes me feel good. I'm happy with this."

His exit today idicated otherwise.