Russian Tennis Rebel on a Roll

Russian Tennis Rebel on a Roll - January 16

By Mike Steinberger
Financial Times

In tennis, as in life, there are two ways to announce your arrival: loudly or softly. In the case of Marat Safin, the charming but combustible Russian goliath, it was apparent from the start that his march up the rankings would not be a quiet one.
Three years ago, at the age of 18, Safin enjoyed a spectacular French Open debut, knocking out both Andre Agassi and defending champion Gustavo Kuerten en route to the fourth round. After this came a tragi-comic slump that saw dozens of rackets disembowelled as Safin's game abandoned him and he even considered a premature retirement. He might well be sitting on a park bench today, feeding the pigeons, were it not for the pep talk he received last April from his compatriot Andrei Chesnokov, a former player all too familiar with the agony of underachievement.

Chesnokov's exhortations somehow penetrated Safin's usually impregnable psyche; the sulking prodigy burst out of his rut and became nearly unbeatable, capping a brilliant run with his annihilation of Pete Sampras in the US Open final in September. Straight sets, 90 minutes, Sampras shell-shocked and virtually in tears. Safin didn't merely announce his arrival that surreal Sunday afternoon; true to form, he bellowed it.

Now, as the curtain rises on the Australian Open - the first grand slam of the year begins on Monday in Melbourne - the spotlight, naturally, is on Safin, who has several big questions confronting him. Can he capture another of tennis's crown jewels or will he join the sport's long list of one-hit wonders? Is the erratic, temperamental Safin of old really banished, or just hibernating? More pressingly, will a niggling elbow injury that forced him to withdraw from a Melbourne warm-up exhibition on Wednesday dash his chances down under?

Doubts also swirl around him on account of his nationality and the rather sorry record of recent Russian tennis stars. Over the past decade or so, the men's tour has seen a handful of gifted Russians - Alexander Volkov, Andrei Medvedev, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, as well as Chesnokov - come barrelling down the baseline, only to be distracted by all the wealth and celebrity thrust on them. Can Safin avoid falling into the money-and-honey trap? He doesn't seem particularly worried about this, or anything else, at the moment. Indeed, he arrives in Australia in an unburdened state of mind, still savouring his US Open triumph.

"I'm just very happy that I have my first grand slam title in the bag," he says. "It has taken me to another level. Now, people respect me, everyone takes me seriously, and the other players know they are going to really have to fight to beat me."

But Safin is quick to warn that his satisfaction should in no way be construed as complacency: "I want to win the Australian, and I want the number one ranking."

He is even more emphatic about his long-term prospects. "There is no chance that I'm not going to win another grand slam title."

The Moscow native has the ability and the arsenal to win more than a few majors. His rich potential first drew international notice seven years ago, when Safin was brought to the attention of Spanish coach Rafael Mensua. At the time, the teenager was trained by his parents, Misha and Rausa. But with Marat, who takes his name from an 18th century French revolutionary, growing more skilled, and stubborn, by the match, Misha decided his son's career would be best served by going abroad, and he secured for him a scholarship to Mensua's tennis academy in Valencia, Spain. It was here that the raw talent was turned into something more bankable. It was a process helped by the 10 inches in height Safin gained while under Mensua's tutelage. He is now 6ft 4in, which explains why 130 miles-an-hour serves fly off his racket with such regularity.

Safin used Valencia as his base until last summer, when he and his chequebook made the inevitable escape to tax-haven Monte Carlo. He returns to Moscow several times a year, where his parents are engaged in another project: his sister, Dinara, a promising junior.

In contrast to most of his peers, Safin gives some consideration to the world beyond the doubles alley, and he doesn't hesitate to share his views. When queried about the seemingly dire situation in his homeland, he pounces as if presented with an easy overhead: "CNN, the BBC - they exaggerate about what is going on in Russia. I get really pissed off by the things they say on TV. They only show the problems. They say people are dying in Russia. Well, look at [New York's] the Bronx and all the people who get killed there. Why only talk about Russia?"

Safin is perhaps better appreciated, however, for his deadpan humour than his geopolitical observations. The quips work particularly well when voiced in his chunky English. Minutes after beating Sampras at the US Open, for instance, he was asked courtside how he had engineered such a lopsided victory over the player many consider history's greatest. "Think I know?" came the thickly accented, baritone reply, sending a ripple of laughter through the stands.

Four months later, he is still groping for an explanation, albeit in a slightly more serious manner: "How do you describe a day when you are just perfect, when every ball goes inside the court? I have no idea why I played so well, but it was a good moment to have it happen."

Safin has a clearer understanding of why he fell to both Sampras and Agassi in the Tennis Masters Cup in Lisbon in December, losses that cost him the No 1 ranking for 2000. He attributes the defeats to the two tournaments he played before arriving in Lisbon, which he says drained him of what little fuel he had left in the tank at the season's end.

Besides laying claim to the top spot again - and holding on to it this time - Safin has several other immediate goals. He would like to improve both his footwork and his volleying. In part because he still struggles at the net, he remains uncomfortable on grass. Thus, Wimbledon may frustrate him a while longer. He hopes that will not be the case with the French Open, which is the championship he most covets.

And rivals? He is not prepared to write off either Sampras or Agassi. Among his fellow "new balls", as the tour's advertising campaign dubs the sport's up-and-coming stars, he reckons his toughest challenger will be last year's world No 7 Lleyton Hewitt, the fiery Australian whippet. He also expects problems from Switzerland's Roger Federer and Spain's Juan Carlos Ferrero.

But after his US Open win, most tennis aficionados believe the future belongs to Safin - assuming, of course, that he has truly exorcised his demons. He is undoubtedly maturing; he is abusing fewer rackets these days and is less apt to self-destruct when struggling with shots.

On the other hand, he is, by his own admission, basically uncoachable. In fact, he is currently without a coach. After months of tension, he and Mensua split up last spring, and Safin has since gone through several "advisers", including Chesnokov and Volkov. The only adult supervision for now is provided by Ion Tiriac, the colourful Romanian and former manager of Boris Becker, who serves in a consultative role. But it is hard to gauge just how much influence Tiriac has over his feisty charge.

It may be Safin is just not very receptive to other opinions. Certainly, it is telling that he claims to have no role model. He also makes plain that he has no intention of emulating Sampras's single-minded, monastic pursuit of trophies. "I am not that type of guy," he says. "I try to have a normal life. I like to go to the cinema, to bars, to good restaurants."

A headstrong bon vivant might not be an obvious candidate for tennis immortality, but then, not every headstrong bon vivant is a once-in-a-generation talent.

The next few years will show whether Safin has the discipline and determination to cash in fully on his genius for the game. Whatever happens, he is going to do it his way.