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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Maybe Kafelnikov was right. Maybe Safin hasn't matured, after
"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
His exit today idicated otherwise.