Russian Revolutionary

Sunday April 8, 2001
The Observer, Sport

Marat Safin is the future of tennis. Who says so? Well Pete Sampras, among many others. The man who will be king talks to Tim Adams about success, successions and celebrity

Palm Springs is where corporate Californians come to die, the happy hunting ground of the golden state. Time here is measured out in long, air-conditioned days behind the high walls and digitally operated drawbridges of country clubs; by night the only signs of life are the thousands of automatic sprinklers which irrigate the desert's 100 impossibly verdant golf courses. Beyond this manicured green belt, snow-topped mountains rise up too high and fast from the dusty plain. These peaks form the stage-set backdrop for the city's one-week-a-year shrine to eternal youth: the Indian Wells tennis tournament.

The new purpose-built stadium for this ritual event is almost cruelly vertiginous too, and each time play gets under way on court some of the more elderly locals are inevitably still feeling their way toward their seats, shuffling gingerly down steepling aisles, trying to decipher their ticket stubs through the wrong glasses, deaf to the patient promptings of an umpire asking them to hurry. There is a curious quiet everywhere. The only noise in the hot desert air, apart from the low thwack of balls, comes from the tennis village outside where a Simon and Garfunkel soundalike duo, Sounds of Silence, run through their acoustic repertoire and, every afternoon, Nick Bolletieri, tennis guru to the stars, explains on stage how terribly strange it feels to be seventy.

In among the taco bars and power juice tents Silicon Valley snake-oil salesmen offer wrinkle creams and anti-ageing elixirs to ever hopeful disciples. It seems they need hardly bother: out on the practice courts nearby there seems enough energetic life force for it to be bottled, or received by osmosis. It is perhaps for this reason that a large woman, carrying two giant Slush Puppies, a small sack of pretzels and an oversized tennis ball, is breaking into an unaccustomed trot down the main concourse in the midday sun. She seems to have identified an urgent need to be in close proximity to some of this carefree physical power.

As she jogs, sunglasses bouncing on the bridge of her nose, sweat breaking on her shoulders, her vast shorts straining to contain the geographical expanse of her behind, she calls to her friend, who is a few yards off her pace, to keep up. Then, nearing the court, where a crowd of like-minded over-nourished souls is already gathering, she half-turns to see her companion dropping back into the throng, and stage whispers one last exhortation: 'It's a big Russian guy,' she says, holding her place with one vast arm through the swelling crowd, 'and he's wearing some kind of pantyhose.'

The big Russian guy in question, Marat Safin, 21 years old, the reigning US Open champion, and tennis's undisputed Next Big Thing, is indeed on court wearing a flesh-coloured reinforced girdle and baggy check shorts. He stands around six foot six in his technologically sculpted trainers, has a crew cut, the torso of a heavyweight boxer, and what look like dog tags around his neck. The girdle, which could be a surgical bandage, gives him the appearance of a war hero, and he is addressing the ball with something like the pent-up ferocity of a battle-fatigued conscript, smiling occasionally as if at his own easy aggression, and every so often feeling his rib cage where a troublesome muscle injury has kept him out of the previous three tournaments and threatens his participation in this one.

At courtside, next to me, two teenage girls, giggling, smitten, are also concerned about Safin's back; in particular about the passionate provenance of a line of five parallel scratch marks just under his shoulder blade.

In one corner of the court, by way of contrast to the intimidating presence of the Russian, is Mats Wilander, the winner of six grand slams, who today has embarked on a new life as Marat Safin's coach, the latest in a longish line. Wilander, a wiry figure, bandy legged, is watching his charge from behind Lennon-framed shades with a half-smile on his face, occasionally throwing Safin a ball and asking him how his injured ribs are holding up. 'There is pain,' Safin mutters darkly, 'but the doctor said there would be pain. Pain is normal.'

Wilander is the only person in the stadium complex, and probably in the whole of Palm Springs, who is wearing clothes that do not appear to have been removed from their branded packaging that morning: he has on a washed-out khaki sweat top and well-travelled green shorts; his rackets are in beaten-up holdall; he hasn't shaved. His coaching, in this debut session, is limited to wry glances and the odd cryptic comment: 'Sometimes the balls look big here and sometimes they look small,' he says at one point. Safin nods agreement. 'They look pretty big today,' he says.
When the pair eventually wander back the couple of hundred yards to the locker room, they lose each other on the way. Wilander, in his veteran kit, is allowed to pass through the crowds unmolested and unrecognised while a gaggle of fame-seekers swarms around the legs of the giant Safin, some touching his flesh or his corset as if to confirm he is real. The woman with the outsize ball holds it up for him to sign, and then studies the signature.

'What's your name?' she yells at him.

'Safin,' comes the smiling reply, 'Marat Safin.'

And she goes off to repeat it, incorrectly, to her friend.

It is a fair bet that it won't be long before most of us know Marat Safin's revolutionary name rather well. The day before he arrived here, I watched Pete Sampras, whose game Safin dismantled at Flushing Meadow, speak of the young Russian with something approaching awe. As he talked about Safin as 'the future', Sampras's weary body language clearly remembered the September afternoon in New York last year when his young opponent made him look like a balding 29-year-old who had just got married and had $100 million in the bank: a man who, having overwhelmed the court for a decade, suddenly found himself diminishing in stature point by point.

The impression - despite Sampras's protestations to the contrary, and an avenging defeat towards the end of last season - has undoubtedly stuck. Tennis has long looked for a natural heir to the Agassi-Becker-Sampras generation: in Safin, to Sampras's eyes at least, it would seem the pretender has arrived.

Off court, showered, and sprawled on a sofa in the player's lounge, Safin seems even bigger than he did whacking backhands in the afternoon sun. Though he is surrounded here by men of similar gargantuan build - Goran Ivanesevic, his hero and role model, is playing table tennis nearby (and losing, stylishly), Mark Phillipoussis is checking the draw on a TV screen - Safin generates an extra presence born of extreme physical confidence. He seems in no doubt he is an alpha male in this exalted company, the challenge now is getting the public to realise it, too.

'It's a little bit of a difficult time for us new guys,' he says, by which he means Gustavo Kuerten, and Lleyton Hewitt and Juan Carlos Ferrero in particular, 'because no one actually knows us very well still. They still think that Pete and Andre are the only players to see. They don't realise we are around yet.'

So does he think that it's time Sampras and Agassi called it a day? 'No,' he says, with his lugubrious Russian inflection, 'we need them for a while longer so people still come and the prize money stays high.' He smiles slowly. 'When the fans know us, then those guys can go quietly. . .'

There are certain subjects that tennis players traditionally will not talk about in interview. These include their interior life; other players; romance; money; emotions; politics and ideas. The things they will talk about, in their place, generally involve the current trajectory of their ball toss, and the particular degree of their focus on the coming match. Among the press corps who witness the mandatory post-match interviews, Safin is considered something of an exception to this rule. Veterans of a thousand quote-free Q & As with Henman ('he raised his level at a crucial time') or Hingis ('I raised my level at a crucial time') have warmed to the Russian - who doled out irony and vodka to the hacks in Flushing Meadow - as something of a raconteur. The distinction, you have to say, is a fine one, however.

Safin can rattle off the story of his efforts to hold on to the No 1 ranking at the end of last year's Masters race in Muscovite shorthand - 'I make what I could; for the final I was unlucky; he was better this day. That's life' - and he has off-pat the particular reasons for his sluggish start to the season. His back, his back and his back.

But ask him about life off court and he will tend to reply in a series of upbeat catch-all catchphrases, generally delivered with a raised eyebrow that hints at greater complexity:
'I enjoy my life'

'I just want to people to enjoy themselves'

'I am very happy'

'I just want to make everyone happy'

In America, People magazine recently named Safin one of the 25 most intriguing people in the world, and in a way you can see its point. As an interviewee Safin serves up some of the same contradictions he reveals on court: he is both relaxed and intense, boyish and self-assured, all-conquering and oddly fragile.

Some of this perhaps has to do with his upbringing. Like nearly all modern players, he was born into a tennis dynasty: his mother was a top 10 player in Russia , his father ran the Spartak club in Moscow, one of the very few serious tennis clubs in the Soviet Union at that time. Safin, who began playing aged three, was schooled in the regimen of Eastern Bloc sports stars, but when he was 13 his parents decided to take advantage of the liberalised political climate and sent him abroad, to a tennis school in Valencia, to develop his game further. There, he was taken under the wing of the Spanish coach Rafael Mensua, who seems to have instilled in Safin not only those enormous groundstrokes, but also a certain flexibility of thought. He was obliged nevertheless to fend for himself. Looking back, I wonder if he resented being sent away from his family at an early age?

'No,' he says, eyebrow raised. 'I am very, very happy about that.'

Why exactly?

'I think as a guy you need a little bit to be on your own from early on, to start to live your own life, and try to understand what is going on around you, you have to be able to survive. . .'

He contrasts his situation with that of his 14-year-old sister, who is the top-ranked Russian junior in an increasingly competitive field. 'My parents now work full-time to take care of her, because the most important thing of course is to make a family. They now try to give my sister the things I could not have because I was away.'

Does he regret at all not having had that support himself?

'No,' he says. 'I am happy. I am very, very happy that I did not have all these things. . .' (Later, when I speak to his sister, Dinara, who is playing in Spain, her mother in attendance, she seems to have inherited the family's capacity for boundless contentment: 'I am extremely happy to have Marat's example,' she says, 'and very happy to be playing my own game here, too.')

When Safin started to achieve a measure of success, he left Spain and went to live in Monte Carlo, which is home to about half of the top ranked European players on the tour. It is also the power base of Ion Tiriac, the Romanian tennis svengali who was Ilie Nastase's doubles partner. Tiriac, whose company now manages Safin's business interests, compares him to a young Boris Becker, not so much in his style of play - for all his reach, the Russian still tends to win his points from the back of the court rather than at the net - but for the way he believes in 'the purity and simplicity of just playing tennis'.

This faith seems to manifest itself in different ways: when things are going well it gives the Russian's game the promise of an almost beatific ease. But when things are going badly, as with Becker, it can unleash demons. At the end of his first punishing year on the tour, Safin admitted to having broken 48 rackets in anger, more than one per tournament. He puts this down now to 'the way I am', and the fact that 'no one likes to lose. I'm just trying to do all I can to beat the other guy. You get nervous and angry. But if you don't like to see the way I play, don't come.' (In fact, so certain are the tennis authorities that this violent emotion is, in fact, what crowds do want to see, and so anxious are they to create 'characters' in the game, that they have relaxed the laws on 'racket abuse', apparently for Safin's benefit.)

For all this ferocious will to win, however, Safin remains the only player on the modern tour ever to have been pulled up for 'tanking' in matches: throwing games by not trying. He was fined $2,000 for this offence at the Australian Open last year: the referee suggesting that he gave up in his first-round match against the South African Grant Stafford, and apparently, on one point, caught his opponent's serve in his hand and tossed it back underarm. Safin denies this incident happened, and claims, still annoyed at the implication, that 'people made a bigger story from this than it was. The guy who handed out the fine, obviously he knows much more about tennis and much more about me than I do. He's a very smart guy. Very smart. . .'

Still, such incidents point to a psychology somewhat at odds with Safin's laid-back off-court persona. Does he recognise the contradiction in himself?

'Oh,' he smiles, predictably, these days he's 'very happy off court and on', and anyway he has been breaking far fewer rackets of late.

Does he manage to find enough distractions in Monte Carlo? I wonder.

He laughs a little: 'I try to do my best to have fun off the court,' he says. 'You are only 21 once. I am aware I will never get back to this time. You cannot make big parties, you cannot take cocaine or whatever, obviously, but there are plenty of other ways of having fun. And anything you can do you ought to do I think.'

Such as?

He searches for an appropriate vice, grinning. 'Oh, cars,' he says, 'cars, cars, cars, so many cars.'

Does he ever find it hard to concentrate on playing?

He looks around the room, studies the pool players, smiles at compatriot Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who is sitting at the next table, 'No,' he says finally, eyebrows raised. 'It's not hard to concentrate. It's all business to me and this business is a business I like very much.'

There have been times in his career when this sense of well-being has seemed like a distant prospect, however: as recently as a year ago, at Indian Wells, Safin was considering giving up the game for good. The man who changed his mind then was Andrei Chesnokov, the former Russian Davis Cup player, who has known him since he himself was a boy training at the Spartak club and Safin's mother used to bring her baby to courtside in a pram.

Speaking from Paris, where he is playing, Chesnokov explains that by the time Safin was 13 he could see that he was going to be a very great player - 'he had very good hands, a perfect feeling for the ball, he always saw it early and hit it with great power' Subsequently he saw the prodigy come of age, beating Agassi at Roland Garros in 1998 as a qualifier. Two years later, though, out of the blue, Chesnokov got a call from 'one of Marat's agents', as he says, who told him that Safin no longer wanted to play at all; after a run of dramatically poor results he was thinking of quitting the game. The agent wondered if a Russian might be able to help, someone he could communicate properly with.

The first thing that Chesnokov tried to establish was that Safin had informed his mentor Mensua that he was seeking a new coach. He hadn't, so it was a few weeks before the pair joined up, at Barcelona. Safin had, at that stage, won four matches in five months. On the practice court, Chesnokov says, he just watched him without speaking for an hour. 'Then I said to him, "The way you practise is no way to practise." His mind was not on the court, he was talking to people as they walked by, always looking around for what was going on. And he was trying to hit every ball as hard as he could.'

Chesnokov says that he did not coach Safin, so much as help him get his head together; but the results were immediate. He won in Barcelona and then again the following week in Mallorca. In a few months his ranking went from 123 in the world to No 9. Looking back on that change of fortunes now, Safin recalls how, previously, 'If I was playing good, I was playing unbelievable, but when I was playing bad, I couldn't beat my mother. [With Andrei] I started to practise with my head, not my strokes and everything came together.'

Oddly, the relationship did not last. Characteristically, it seems, having learnt what he thought he could from his friend the single-minded Safin simply moved on. After the French Open Chesnokov heard that Safin had gone to practise on grass with Tony Pickard, Stefan Edberg's former coach. There was no phone call, no explanation. ('Why would he do that, when we had just won everything together?' Chesnokov still wonders). When he called the office of Safin's agent, at the time, he says someone told him: 'Don't you fuck with us.' The pair, not surprisingly have hardly spoken since though Safin, when he is listing his closest friends, still numbers Chesnokov among them. 'I can talk to Andrei, for example, about anything,' he says, apparently oblivious to the bad feeling he has caused.

In some ways, Safin has many reasons to be thankful to players like Chesnokov , and not just for helping him get his game back on course. In recent years with the on-court success of the likes of Kafelnikov and the off-court success of Anna Kournikova, tennis has become more popular than ever in Russia, and there is a whole group of young players ready to follow in Safin's size elevens. Yet a generation ago tennis was hardly even recognised as a sport, and dismissed as bourgeois by the Olympic-obsessed Soviet authorities. When Chesnokov first played the game at school in the Seventies he went home and told his family that he was going to be a tennis player, and they had never heard of the game. Even in the Eighties when people asked him about what he did, and he explained, everyone would assume he was a table tennis star.

It would take many days, he tells me a little wearily, to describe the particular differences between his era and Safin's but he names a few: for a start it was almost impossible to travel; for another thing, Russian players could not compete in tournaments that included South Africans or Israelis; and wherever he went Chesnokov had the KGB with him, too, making sure he did not fraternise with the wrong people. Things began to change with glasnost, and the game really took a hold under Yeltsin, who was himself a keen player. Now, tennis is Russia's fastest growing sport.

When he looks at the earning potential of the likes of Safin now, Chesnokov says, he wishes them good luck and does not dwell on the fact that at their age he was not allowed to claim any prize money. He is philosophical, too, about the different pressures players like Safin are now under. Does he think, I wonder, given all of Safin's advantages, that he can achieve all that he promises to achieve, or does he believe that his head might still get in his way?

'I think,' he says, 'Marat will become a great, great player. As long, that is, as he chooses the right people to have around him.'

The latest Mr Right, for Safin at Indian Wells is, of course, Mats Wilander, and when he talks of his coach it is with the excitement of a new flirtation, his latest squeeze. The pair were set up as a blind date by a mutual friend; in the few days they have been together here they are enjoying first impressions. 'It's not that often that a guy like this comes along,' says Safin, deadpan, 'so I'm trying to be nice to him: I make sure I pay all his bills. But I think we have very different characters, you know, I need what he has, and actually, he needs what I have.'

Wilander, now 36, is still playing the seniors tour and, without too much sweat, still beating most people ('except McEnroe, of course'). He has four children and a single-figure golf handicap. The incentives to go back on the road for 20 weeks a year - 'the minimum you need to do, I guess' - are, you suppose, not that great. The thing that persuaded him was, he says, seeing Safin play last year. He had been playing golf in Sun Valley about four weeks before Flushing Meadow, 'and everyone was asking me who would win the Open, and I'd been watching Marat, and I just asked them if they had seen him. No one had of course. So I said, "You know unless this guy gets injured, there is no way Sampras is going to win a set off him." And they are all like, "Yeah sure Mats." But it was simple to see really...'

When his prediction came true Wilander was more excited than ever about Safin's game. 'In the finals he was maybe playing 50 per cent of his ability,' he says, warming to the vicarious pleasures of the cornerman. 'He didn't get carried away like, say, Phillipoussis did when he got into the final of a slam, or Henri Leconte. Safin proved he was on a different level to that. He proved that mentally he is all there. He has it. It's just that sometimes he takes his eye off it. But on that occasion he just said: "Here I am, I'm better than you, and here it all comes." And he was playing easy percentage tennis. Against Sampras. No one has ever done that. . .'

In the short time they have been together, Wilander seems to have formed an easy bond with his charge - he speaks of him as a favourite son and fellow traveller: another cool European in a land of college jocks. Attempting to explain why Safin will win many more grand slams, he explains that he sees the time the Russian spent in Spain as crucial to his development (tennis, it seems, lends itself to easy national stereotypes): 'He's much softer, if you know what I mean, than the generic Eastern European guys,' Wilander argues. 'I mean I love them all. But, say, with some of the Czech guys it looks like they have a hard time really giving, getting in there and fighting really hard.

'Not even Ivan Lendl was able to do that until his latter years. He was in many ways a typical Eastern Bloc athlete: he'd be there for the money mostly. Yevgeny has a bit of that in him too [Kafelnikov, who is worth upwards of ?15 million, recently complained that tennis players were not properly rewarded], you can see him fight sometimes but sometimes it's just kind of shallow...' Safin, by contrast, is there purely for the game, Wilander believes.

I wonder if there are elements of his own personality at 21 that he now recognises in the Russian? He leans forward, takes his sunglasses off, becomes animated. 'He's very curious,' he says. 'In people, in tennis, in what everyone is doing. You know he always asks - "Did you go out last night? Where's a good place to go?" - and you need to have that. Your brain cannot stop expanding just because you are a tennis professional. You know, I like the glint in his eye. . . If you have that you are bound to do better over the course of a career and are bound also to have more peaks and valleys.

'You find that the players who just go along straight,who never have a bad day, are never ever going to win the big tournaments, like Medvedev, or Corretja, say. They play just the same at the slams, and that's never going to be good enough. Marat has this kind of Tiger Woods mentality, he knows that the moment itself will fire him....'

At Indian Wells, unfortunately, the moment, such as it is, in a half-empty, sepulchrally quiet stadium is nowhere near enough to fire Safin, still hampered in his flesh-coloured corset. Serving at about 40 miles per hour below his normal pace he succumbs to the hustling Swede Tomas Johansen, pausing only to hurl his racket at the foot of the umpire's chair in disgust.

Afterwards though, he is happy enough. Pleased he came, glad he tried (and, you suspect, though he does not say as much, content to have secured the extra money that will be due to him at the end of the year having played, injured, in this 'mandatory' tournament). He is still having fun, too, with his new coach ('I lose,' he says, 'and even then he was happy with me.') He has, he is sure, plenty to look forward to, knows this is just a stutter, his ambition is set firmly on next month's French Open, his favourite tournament. 'I will do everything to win Roland Garros. Of course I'd like to win all the grand slams, make people happy, win some money, stay No 1 for five years, and enjoy my life. But my big aim this year is Roland Garros.'

The big thing about Safin's game, Wilander says later, is that he has the ability to win on any surface. Having just failed to win the grand slam himself - he won everything except Wimbledon in 1988 - I wonder if one of the incentives for him as a coach is to achieve what he missed out on as a player?

'Perhaps,' he says, but for the moment he is not looking too far ahead. 'We decided that we would try to make it through this evening,' he says, laughing. 'I thought that maybe now he lost he would just kick me out straightaway. But I'm going to hang in there, wait to see what happens.' As they drive off together into a sunset over the high sierra, you imagine that, with Safin, he will not have to wait too long.

Joining the bourgeoisie

Six of Safin's countrymen leading the Russian takeover of tennis

Anna Kournikova
Birthplace Moscow
Age 19
World ranking 9
WTA singles titles 0
Prize money $2,692,929
Formidable groundstokes, but still has something to prove. The lack of a tournament victory has scarcely affected her status as the most photographed woman in world sport.

Yevgeny Kafelnikov
Birthplace Sochi
Age 27
World ranking 5
ATP singles titles 23
Grand slams 2
Prize money $18, 593,024
Still a major contender in the grand slams, though motivation can be lacking at the lesser events. Recently claimed tennis players are underpaid.

Tatiana Panova
Birthplace Moscow
Age 24
World ranking 37
WTA singles titles 0
Prize money $554,404
Has been around a while, but is still improving, and reached her first semi-final on the WTA Tour in Kuala Lumpur last year. A week later she was a finalist in Pattaya and ended the season ranked 34th.

Andrei Stoliarov
Birthplace Sochi
Age 24
World ranking 95
ATP singles titles 0
Prize money $291, 355
Like Kafelnikov, comes from the Black Sea town of Sochi. Turned pro in 1996 and has gradually climbed the rankings ever since. Qualified for first Grand Slam this year, losing in the first round of the Australian Open.

Elena Dementieva
Birthplace Moscow
Age 19
World ranking 11
WTA singles titles 0
Prize money $751,538
Very highly rated, hard-hitting Dementieva was the surprise package of women's tennis last year. Reached the semi-finals of the US Open and won an Olympic silver medal in Sydney.

Mikhail Youzhny
Birthplace Moscow
Age 18
World ranking 84
ATP singles titles 0
Prize money $174,493
After turning pro in 1999, he quickly made an impact on the men's tour, last year finishing as the second youngest player - after American Andy Roddick - in the top 200 of the ATP Champions Race.