New balls, please

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 a telegram.

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 tour�s officials, promoters and sponsors, and the people who write about tennis for a living, it couldn�t have happened to a better person. Highly sensitive to accusations of dullness and anonymity, men�s 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 men�s 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- �the so-called Big Game (overwhelming serves followed by savage attacks at the net)�- threatened �to diminish tennis itself�. 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 �personalities� and �characters.� 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 men�s 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.
He�s 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 �more than any other player on the circuit.�
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. �I don�t think Mats is doing it for the money.� Safin told me. �He thinks I can be a great player.� 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 �to make history.�
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 season�s major tournaments looming (after the French Open in Paris, his schedule brings him to Stella Artois tournament at Queen�s next week where he will prepare for Wimbledon, prior to defending the US Open in New York) but, in his own expression, �back at zero�, 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 technology.

Moulded and padded, they resembled some curious amalgm of a princess�s slipper and a dog�s 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 boxer�s sparring partner someone to work out on.

�Touch,� Safin would tell me later, �is not my best thing,� 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 men�s tennis, and still less fashionably in women�s tennis - entirely gruntless. As he worked, the dutiful silence was broken only by the �pock� of the balls and by the occasional burst of fluent cursing in Russian, Spanish and English.
�Ach!� Safin spat, as a bounce eluded him. �The shittiest court in the world!� 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. �Focus� 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: �The thing about being injured, it feels like nobody respects you any more.
The players don�t look at you like a huge tennis player. They don�t respect you that much.� 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. �Why not?� he said, shrugging. �If you don�t enjoy it any more, why suffer? Enjoy your life and do what you like.� And opening a bar? �Again why not?� It was going to be in Moscow. �Of course,� he said. �You can�t make huge money in that business. But you can have fun and be with your friends.� 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, �You 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.�

Still, life is easier than it was. Safin gestured around him and was suddenly philosophical. �You want to sat in the five-star hotels? You have to get here and, believeme, it�s 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 it�s, �What do you want? Coke? Whisky?� You have to think about where you�re coming from and how much money you had before. You cannot forget these things.�

Wouldn�t it be easy to lose touch? Safin scolded me for the suggestion. �You cannot lose touch.
There is no chance. A shitty life, you never forget.� 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, �There comes a moment when you simply start sending them to hell in your mind.�

When I asked him to elaborate on this, he said, �My mother was great, she did agreat job. But the last year, she started to become a mother. I started to shout at her, Ididn�t respect her and I didn�t treat her like a coach. Parents have to stay parents. It never works with a coach who�s a mother or father. It�s not good for the relationship. I think it�s better to find the money and pay a coach.� His mother�s solution was to send him to Spain, where she knew the former director of Spanish women�s 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. �They left me,their son, to try to survive,� he says, in a tone which seems to contain both pride and protest.

�They left me to find my life.� He thinks it taught his resilience, gave him �more idea about life outside. Who you can trust, who you can�t trust. You have to go by yourself in order to find out what you are in the world.� He was in Spain for four years, but he claimed that after two of them, at 16, he �knew what was going on.�

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. �That was the best time of my life.
She didn�t ask me where I�d 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.�

Do his parents now follow him on the circuit? �I don�t like them to,� Safin said. �To 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, you�re not nice to them - it�s better they stay at home and take care of my sister.� (Safin�s 15-year-old sibling, Dinara, is also training to be a tennis pro. �She wants to be famous,� Safin said. �All the girls, they want to be famous, right?�)

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.

�You can destroy one racket. You can destroy a chair. But you can�t 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 don�t want to see sick people like me on the court, throwing their rackets at chairs.� He grinned to indicate that he didn�t 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 chance.

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 �Andreja� had left the following communication: �he 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 women�s tennis and guess who is gonna meet him ME so stop fantasising".