Telegraph magazine 9 June 2001
Article by: Giles Smith
New balls, please
On a chilly Sunday evening in May at the Foro Italico in Rome,
the day before the Italian open, a throng stood on the concrete
steps beneath the tall, pollarded trees, raptly watching a
21-year-old from Moscow in a grey sweat-marked T-shirt hit
tennis balls on a red clay court. Even on a day off, Marat
Safin pulls a crowd.
It's a trick that has come easily to him since last September
when, at the age of 20 and in only his third year on the professional
circuit, he overwhelmed Pete Sampras, the pre-eminent tennis
player of the modern age, in the final of the US Open. For
most players, overwhelming Sampras is not a option, least
of all in the final of a Grand Slam.
Safin managed it in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, initiating
a global flurry of excitement, as if at the overthrow of an
old order. President Clinton phoned him; President Putin sent
Just 10 months earlier, Safin had failed to get past the first
round in fiveconsecutive tournaments, and had a very seriously
considered giving up tennis and opening a bar. By November
he had reached number one in the world rankings and, as if
in a public declaration of his intention to do this tennis-star
thing properly, had bought himself an apartment in Monte Carlo.
From the point of view of the professionals tourï¿½s officials,
promoters and sponsors, and the people who write about tennis
for a living, it couldnï¿½t have happened to a better person.
Highly sensitive to accusations of dullness and anonymity,
menï¿½s tennis lives in perpetual fear of domination by the
kind of blank-faced serve and volley artists that Safin is
most emphatically not. This anxiety is by no means new. Nothing
that the average number of shots exchanged in a menï¿½s tennis
match had shrunk by two thirds inside six years, the American
writer John McPhee observed that, for some people, the efficiency
of modern play- ï¿½the so-called Big Game (overwhelming serves
followed by savage attacks at the net)ï¿½- threatened ï¿½to diminish
tennis itselfï¿½. McPhee was writing in 1969.
Thirty-two years on, the sport has yet to disappear, but still
the pleas is heard, with varying degrees of desperation, for
ï¿½personalitiesï¿½ and ï¿½characters.ï¿½ Recently the cry has been
particularly loud. A generation is passing: Boris Becker has
gone; Andre Agassi is 31. Vacancies are opening up at the
top of menï¿½s tennis for a torch-carrier. And the tennis world
and its press have latched gratefully on to Safin, a player
not only copiously and clearly gifted (John McEnroe said two
years ago that Safin would rise to the top 10), but openly
emotional and expressive into the bargain, and not above a
bit of the clowning that tennis audiences enjoy.
Heï¿½s a ball-kicker, a ground-stamper- best of all, a racket-smasher.
Safin smashes rackets for Russia. He estimates that he has
trashed 150 to date which, as the tennis magazine Ace notes
with relish, is ï¿½more than any other player on the circuit.ï¿½
He also seems to go through coaches the way other players
go through sweatbands, employing the Russian Andrei Chesnokov
and Alexander Volkov for seven months in 2000, then returning
for five months to Rafael Mensua, who had coached him through
college, before taking up with the reserved and often sloppily
dressed Swede Mats Wilander in February of this year. ï¿½I donï¿½t
think Mats is doing it for the money.ï¿½ Safin told me. ï¿½He
thinks I can be a great player.ï¿½ The feeling has rapidly grown
that Safin is a young incomer who has it in him to win the
biggest trophies in the sport and, incidentally, along the
way jawline still sports the occasional solitary but impressive
pimple. But it seems to be fine by Safin, whose own ambition,
he told me, in an alarming casual way, is ï¿½to make history.ï¿½
Recently, however, history has had to wait. This year, to
his intense frustration,Safin has been harassed by damaged
nerves in his back. In pain every time he served, he withdrew
from the circuit for two months to receive treatment. Come
May, he was still tentatively edging his way back and had
yet to find his best form.
So Sunday evening in Rome found him with the seasonï¿½s major
tournaments looming (after the French Open in Paris, his schedule
brings him to Stella Artois tournament at Queenï¿½s next week
where he will prepare for Wimbledon, prior to defending the
US Open in New York) but, in his own expression, ï¿½back at
zeroï¿½, with everything to prove. Practising, Safin looked
deceptively casual. With the grey T-shirt, he wore some checked
shorts of the kind one might take on holiday. Only his feet
were dressed for business.
What he had on were not shoes so much pieces of advanced foot
Moulded and padded, they resembled some curious amalgm of
a princessï¿½s slipper and a dogï¿½s chewable toy.
For an hour, Safin pounded balls down the court in the direction
of his hired hitter, who serves the same hapless function
as a heavyweight boxerï¿½s sparring partner someone to work
ï¿½Touch,ï¿½ Safin would tell me later, ï¿½is not my best thing,ï¿½
by which he meant he declicacies, the drop-shots, the stop-volleys,
the lobs. What he specialises in is power, for which he is
physically equipped. Safin stands 6ft 4in- all neck and back.
During the enormous, whistling forehand swing through the
ball that eventually brings the racket head to a point way
behind and above his head, his torso is entirely still, lending
his play, for all its meaty, ballsocking power, a graceful
and distinctly cool absence of effort.
He is also - unfashionably in menï¿½s tennis, and still less
fashionably in womenï¿½s tennis - entirely gruntless. As he
worked, the dutiful silence was broken only by the ï¿½pockï¿½
of the balls and by the occasional burst of fluent cursing
in Russian, Spanish and English.
ï¿½Ach!ï¿½ Safin spat, as a bounce eluded him. ï¿½The shittiest
court in the world!ï¿½ In concentration, he tends to hold a
slightly pursed expression, as if ready at any moment to unleash
a tantrum; but he also has a grin which can erupt across his
face and ignite his eyes. This happened when, for instance,
he deliberately sent a pair of balls down to his hitter, just
to confuse him.
These things are done to relieve the tedium. And relieving
the tedium does seem important to Safin who, despite the job
in hand, remains alert to what is happening on the periphery
- players threading their way along the path from other courts,
the arrival or departure of fans on the concrete.
Earlier that afternoon, Andre Agassi had practised on these
courts (his session whooped at and applauded by a packed crowd
as if it were matchplay) and, as he scuttled about his business,
his eyes at no point strayed beyond the tramlines. ï¿½Focusï¿½
is a word tennis players use a lot.
They try to focus, try to remain focused, try to feel focused.
Agassi has focus. But what of Safin, a multi-millionaire at
21, with expectation stacked up above him? Will the distractions
get to him? Can he focus? Can he stay focused?
After Practice, at 7.30om, Safin pulled on a sweater, packing
his bag and negotiated the warren of whitewashed tunnels beneath
the stadium. He has the detached, slightly slouchy walk of
the sportsman, scuffing his heels, his arms loose, rolling
slightly from side to side - the walk of someone who is persevering
his energy for other things.
At the gate, he tossed his bag into the boot of the courtesy
car and slumped into the rear seat. One could not be certain
whether it was his back or the hour of day, but that last
hour on the clay had not lifted him. In the car - his legs
too big for the space, his bare knees up comically high -
he looked darkly out at Rome speeding by and grumbled into
the window in a Muscovite drawl: ï¿½The thing about being injured,
it feels like nobody respects you any more.
The players donï¿½t look at you like a huge tennis player. They
donï¿½t respect you that much.ï¿½ But no mood seems to stay long
with Safin and by the times the car was pulling on to the
lavishly fountained forecourt of the Cavalieri Hilton, he
had visibly lightened. He ordered a Coke and, still unshowered
and unchanged, sprawled across a sofa in the expensively lit
bar as a pianist played selections from the international
hotel lobby repertoire (Rodgers and Hart, Stevie Wonder).
I asked Safin if he had been serious about retiring. ï¿½Why
not?ï¿½ he said, shrugging. ï¿½If you donï¿½t enjoy it any more,
why suffer? Enjoy your life and do what you like.ï¿½ And opening
a bar? ï¿½Again why not?ï¿½ It was going to be in Moscow. ï¿½Of
course,ï¿½ he said. ï¿½You canï¿½t make huge money in that business.
But you can have fun and be with your friends.ï¿½ Fun, friends,
money: these are themes Safin returns to- particularly the
way, in his case, earning the money can get in the way of
having the fun and the friends. He is rarely not on the road;
he passes his days with his manager and coaches; he returns
in the evening to a hotel room and his Metallica and Offspring
CDs. He was, he told me, in a relationship with a girl which
had been going on for a few months, but he declined to elaborate,
beyond saying, ï¿½You need somebody.
Otherwise you are too lonely. You get sick of the guys. You
want to see a beautiful girl, to talk, discuss about things,
get angry, make something happen. Otherwise life is boring.ï¿½
Still, life is easier than it was. Safin gestured around him
and was suddenly philosophical. ï¿½You want to sat in the five-star
hotels? You have to get here and, believeme, itï¿½s a long way.
Years and years of working hard and traveling the world, and
shitty hotels with no TV and no bathroom. I did all this.
Going to a cafe and eating off the $5 menu. You start with
$100 a week, maybe. I was down to nothing sometimes. I had
to make some good results to make money. Now you come to five-star
hotels, and itï¿½s, ï¿½What do you want? Coke? Whisky?ï¿½ You have
to think about where youï¿½re coming from and how much money
you had before. You cannot forget these things.ï¿½
Wouldnï¿½t it be easy to lose touch? Safin scolded me for the
suggestion. ï¿½You cannot lose touch.
There is no chance. A shitty life, you never forget.ï¿½ How
bad was it for Safin? He was born in Moscow in 1980 to a relatively
prosperous family. His mother, Rausa Islanova, is a former
top-10 Russian player; his father, Mikhail, managed the Spartak
tennis club. (Anna Kournikova used to play there, too.) At
first his mother coached him, but adolescence appears to have
intervened. As Safin once put it, speaking of parents in an
interview with a Russian magazine, ï¿½There comes a moment when
you simply start sending them to hell in your mind.ï¿½
When I asked him to elaborate on this, he said, ï¿½My mother
was great, she did agreat job. But the last year, she started
to become a mother. I started to shout at her, Ididnï¿½t respect
her and I didnï¿½t treat her like a coach. Parents have to stay
parents. It never works with a coach whoï¿½s a mother or father.
Itï¿½s not good for the relationship. I think itï¿½s better to
find the money and pay a coach.ï¿½ His motherï¿½s solution was
to send him to Spain, where she knew the former director of
Spanish womenï¿½s tennis, Maria Pasqual.
Pasqual assessed Safin and persuaded a Swiss client to sponsor
him at a tennis academy in Valencia. Safin speaks of this
release as the best thing his parents ever did for him; yet
he gives the impression, too, that he has never quite forgiven
them for it.
He knew no Spaniards. He knew no Spanish. He was 14 and utterly
alone. ï¿½They left me,their son, to try to survive,ï¿½ he says,
in a tone which seems to contain both pride and protest.
ï¿½They left me to find my life.ï¿½ He thinks it taught his resilience,
gave him ï¿½more idea about life outside. Who you can trust,
who you canï¿½t trust. You have to go by yourself in order to
find out what you are in the world.ï¿½ He was in Spain for four
years, but he claimed that after two of them, at 16, he ï¿½knew
what was going on.ï¿½
He had also begun to enjoy himself. After a spell of lodging
with a married couple and their 25-year-old son, he joined
other students renting rooms in the house of a single woman.
ï¿½That was the best time of my life.
She didnï¿½t ask me where Iï¿½d been and what I was doing. I had
my room- just for me. My music centre, my TV. It was great.
I could do what I wanted.ï¿½
Do his parents now follow him on the circuit? ï¿½I donï¿½t like
them to,ï¿½ Safin said. ï¿½To see the tennis is one thing; but
if they come, the next stop is they want to live your life.
You have bad times, injuries, youï¿½re not nice to them - itï¿½s
better they stay at home and take care of my sister.ï¿½ (Safinï¿½s
15-year-old sibling, Dinara, is also training to be a tennis
pro. ï¿½She wants to be famous,ï¿½ Safin said. ï¿½All the girls,
they want to be famous, right?ï¿½)
Safin turned professional at 17, beat Andre Agassi during
the French Open in 1998, and won his first tour title a year
later in Boston. Since then he has won seven more titles,
including the US Open victory over Sampras, and has established,
as a kind of trademark, his volatility, which may be little
more calculated than has previously been acknowledged.
ï¿½You can destroy one racket. You can destroy a chair. But
you canï¿½t destroy a racket and a chair in the same match.
There has to be a limit. One racket. One or two, maybe. Otherwise
this is the tennis of a sick person. People donï¿½t want to
see sick people like me on the court, throwing their rackets
at chairs.ï¿½ He grinned to indicate that he didnï¿½t mean this
for a minute.
The Tuesday after our conversation in Rome, Safin won in the
first round of the Italian Open. Two days later, he was eliminated
in the second round by an unfancied Swiss player. Safin left,
blaming his back, for Hamburg- another tournament, another
Meanwhile, on the proliferating websites and internet chat-rooms
dedicated to Safin, earnest discussion of the player and his
merits continued undaunted.
Someone signing themselves ï¿½Andrejaï¿½ had left the following
communication: ï¿½he is not gonna merry some ugly hopeful middle-class
fan. he is gonna merry me because i am a good person and i
have the looks as well and lastly i soon will be playing pro
womenï¿½s tennis and guess who is gonna meet him ME so stop