Bad-boy Safin aims to entertain as leader of Wimbledon's crazy gang

23 June 2002
courtesy Sunday Telegraph

At 6ft 4in, he could easily play the Russian villain in a James Bond movie,
says Roy Collins

Two years ago, People magazine named Marat Safinj in their list of 25 most intriguing people in the world and anyone who has watched his crazier antics on a tennis court would understand why. As the psychiatrist in Fawlty Towers commented after spending a few minutes observing Basil: "We've got enough for a whole convention here."

But then what would you expect of a man who was forced to play tennis by his mother at the age of six when he was planning to be a soccer star?Named after one of the leaders of the French revolution, Jean-Paul Marat, Safin left no doubt about his Russian nationality by downing chilled vodka after his US Open triumph in 2000. He then left to represent his country in the Olympics, saying: " After that, I want to go to the mountains and disconnect all mobile phones."
He is, of course, renowned for taking out his poorer shots on his rackets, estimating himself that more than 150 have so far ended in courtside bins. It was a skill he began developing as a teenager, umpire Sergei Gerasimov saying: "By the time he was 17, he was smashing them right, left and centre. He'd stomp around the back of the court after a bad shot and you could hear him chastising himself, saying 'Did you come here to play or what? Just show me what you can do.'"

Safin's anger, one must admit, is directed mainly at himself and he is unrepentant about serial behaviour that has earned him several fines, saying: "You have to do something to keep people interested otherwise they will stop coming to watch tennis."

If they lost interest in watching Safin, a player of sublime talent, then it really would be the death knell for the sport. He is a man who will never play an easy winner when he can try the impossible, bringing shrieks of delight against Olivier Rochus in the French Open when he chased a lob to the baseline and played the ball through his legs to hit the baseline at the other end.

"His game was always extraordinary," says Rafael Mensua, who was his first coach when his family sent him to Valencia at the age of 14. Mr. And Mrs. Safin might also have been seeking a little more peace and quiet at their Moscow home.

Mensua became coach, friend, mentor and father figure to Safin, who says: "I'm really proud of him and I would like to say thanks to him because he was the only one who actually believed in me. It was a great six years for me."

At 22, Safin, who is leading the race for the 2002 world No. 1 spot, might already have a cupboard full of Grand Slam trophies. And he was certainly expected to claim a second in this year's Australian Open, where he was surprisingly beaten in the final by Thomas Johansson. Characteristically, he claimed the US Open 2000 with a blistering performance against Pete Sampras in the final after stinking out Flushing Meadows in the opening rounds. Sampras, who had won his previous eight Grand Slam Finals, was beaten in straight sets in a final for the first time.

Safin might have won more titles since then if it were not for a continuing back injury that has halted his progress.
And when this 6ft 4in hulk feels the badness coming on and clomps around the court in his red shoes, he looks every inch the Russian villain from a James Bond movie. But he has the size and the game to be a serious danger to the more fancied players at Wimbledon.

He reached last year's quarter-finals, losing in four sets to champion Goran Ivanisevic and, though he says he does not believe he can win a grass-court tournament, it will be surprising if he does not go along way.

Safin is not slow to praise himself when he is playing well but inevitably, he says: "You're never completely satisfied with your game. You always try to look for a better game, to serve better, to volley better" To keep his temper better? "I try to stay calm but it's not always easy."

His back problems have upset the rhythm of his service action but when they are coming down from his height on grass, they can worry the best players. He is concentrating more on winning tournaments than being world No. 1 he says, believing that the latter naturally follows the former.

He says: " You look at the rankings at the end of the year because during the year, there are lots of changes. Every time someone is doing something big, the ranking is changing very fast. I think you have to check your game first and be careful with injuries, just try to be focused, try to be stable and consistent. Then the ranking is going to come with your game."

Whether or not People magazine were right to include Safin on their list, there is only one word to describe his prospects of taking on the world's best and the Wimbledon authorities in the next fortnight. Intriguing.