Marat Safin

Tennis Magazine, N�277, April 1999.
From Valencia, Yannick Cochennec, and Corrine Dubreuil.

translated by Ben

He was the love at first of the last Roland Garros tournament. Impressive and lovely, Marat, made no bones about it, in his first Grand Slam tournament, where he jump at the opportunity to win over Andre Agassi and Gustavo Kuerten, while taking the wind out of sails of a surprising performance in the Davis cup, against the United States. Certain peoples don't know, but since, he had confirmed. The youngest player ever who have finished the year in the top 50 ATP ranking, the prodigy of Moscow, 19 year old, is perhaps standing at the edge of a great career. Portrait of a cool teenager who could play the leading part...

Wrack !!!!! a racket is gone. In the Melbourne park court number 2, Marat is getting out of nerves since one hours. On the other side of the net, Karol Kucera is showing his usual unperturbed body-language. The seventh seed has almost nothing to do. Generously, his young opponent is gifting him his qualification to the eighteenth finals. Crimson face, more because of the rage, than efforts , Safin, 47th in the world, is transmitting his angry on his working tool which fragments are representing his "stunning" performance. In the tribunes, Rafael Mensua, his Spaniard coach, is observing the extensiveness of the damages. "Marat is like that" he said later, still shocked. "He is able to loose his head , but today, he really has committed suicide. Earlier during the warming, I saw that he was not feeling good. He got irritated very soon in the match".
At 19 years old (his birthday took place in the 27th of January), the revelation of the last Roland Garros is now not really a teenager, nor a "man". Lost between the sides of his life river, Marat sails across his internal storms , which are sometimes violent, like in Australia.

Seven month are gone, between the nice French internationals odyssey , where he sailed to the eighteenth finals thanks to victories against Andre Agassi and Gustavo Kuerten, and the stunning performance against Karol Kucera, in Melbourne Park. During this period, his physical and his status changed. His short hairs turned to curled hair, with gold reflects , which tone down his face, and the surprising effect of his first appearance turned to a real attract for the public, which is seduced by both his physical advantages and his spectacular game. The smiling has remained the same. Cool, open-minded, and cordial, here is Marat Safin. "Now, Marat is a true Mediterranean", smiles Raphael Mensua.
"Do you prefer me with long hairs or short hairs ?", the question is asked in English, with an important Spanish accent. Russian, Marat Safin ? In Spain, in his red Mitsubishi 300 Electre, which is edging into the raining street of Valencia, the young man is very far away, on this winter day, from the snowing streets of Moscow, his native city. "Do you like Madonna ? I love her", a little push on a dashboard button, and the voice of the goddess of the charts comes out. "Do you want to dance ? Look in there, there is a discotheque that I appreciate real good. I know all the good places here where we can have fun". Inspite of his 194 centimeters, Marat is comfortably installed in the reduced space of his race car. Standing on the seat extremely inclined, he is almost in laying position, but he is still aware, looking to the left and right side. "I had my driving licence in the last June" he laughs . "I don't want to be fined too soon. I love the cars. Hey I'm just 19 years old, it's normal". And he laughs loudly while pointing his head straight with his finger. "Every young men are little mad". Mad, is the Marat's story in a certain way. How a teenager of 13 years old, borne and used to live in Moscow, was drooped a day of the 1993 year, without his parents, in Valencia on the east cost of Spain ? The question has exited the curiosity of journalists in Roland Garros. So Marat had fun in making them confused. "As it was too long and too complex to explain, I told them that I didn't remember the all details" he recognises. "I hope you can spend one hour on your time, and lot of papers, because it will take lot of space to write all the story". The car stop at the bottom of a building which takes place in a little sad area. This is the night, but inspite of the darkness, the car expert locate an other red car parked near there. "It's my old Golf, I offered it to my mother, because it wasn't speeding enough". Rauza, his mother, and Dinara, his sister, rejoin him in Valencia, in last November, but Marat don't live with them. "I need my independence" he says seriously. Dinara, 12 years old, is one of the best European players of his category, and to continue to progress, she choose, like his brother, to leave Russia, where the training conditions became terrible. Exceptional fact : Mikhail, the father is in Spain, for few holidays. In an apartment who seems to be spacious, but which sounds unoccupied due to the lack of personal estates, the family meet again, rare event, completely reformed.

Mikhail Safin, a former engineer, is still living in Moscow where he is the director of a gymnasium club mostly dedicated to the business men. We don't ear from him as a tennis player, but on the other side, he illustrated himself on the athletics tracks, becoming the Moscow decathlon champion. On the contrary, Rauza, his wife, has a very good players visiting-card. Semi-finalist of the Roland Garros and Wimbledon juniors tournament, as she was named Rauza Islanova, she, with Olga Morozova, had won in 1968, the prestigious "Annie Soisbault" cup on the Touquet Tennis-Club courts. His country was then named the U.R.S.S, and it was no question, in this period, under the Leonid Brejnev regime, to hope earning money while playing tennis. "I had a good coach, but he chose to work in an other club" she remembers. "His departure broke me. I preferred not continuing"

Thirty years after, Marat is living per procuration, the broken dream of his mother who gave him his Arabian first-name. "I'm from the Caucasian country, and Muslim" she said with precision. "Yes, I'm Muslim like Hicham Arazi" Marat confirms "But be careful, I'm not a practising! I can't with my life style". Standing in the middle of the forest, on the Spartak of Moscow courts, it's Rauza who, between the age of six and thirteen, learn him the basics of the game, and who offered him the weapon to succeed later. "She has done a real good job" emphasises Raphael Mensua. "When he left Moscow, he had already a very complete technique". The Russian tennis will, one day, pay homage to every women who done so much for its success, during this last twenty years. Without Tatiana Naoumko, his only coach ever, perhaps Andrei Chesnokov might not be the champion he was. Without Natalia Rogova, Andrei Cherkasov would not have reach the 13th place in the world. Without the will of Alla, his mother, Anna Kournikova would not break hearts everywhere she plays. Coming from the Spartak of Moscow too, Anna Kournikova has cross, very early , the road of Marat Safin who is 16 month older than her. "I played sometimes with her" he confides. "besides, it's with Anna and height other young player of the club, that I travelled out of Russia, for the first time. I was 10 year old. We went to Indianapolis, in the United States. There was a very rich woman, in there. She was called Barbara Wynn. She was the person who invited us. For us, who hadn't any money, it was incredible". Anna entered quickly the Nick Bolittieri academy, in Florida. His club's fellow has followed her few months later. How ? It's here that started the strange adventure of Marat Safin. Now listen to him �
"My father was friendly closed with a business man in the gymnasium club where he is still working" he told him : "So, I have a 12 years old son, he well plays tennis, but he won't progress if he keeps staying here. What need he do ?". "This business man knew a Swiss banker who could help me. He called him, and the banker answered him that he was agree to give me few moneys. The aim was to allow me to go to the Nick Bolittieri academy. There, we had to see whether I was skilled enough to stay in there". The business man in question, was named Vladimir Sherbakov. The mysterious banker was named Bruce Rappaport and was leading the "Inter Maritime Bank", in Geneva. In September, 1992, a hopeful Marat Safin is travelling so, to Bradenton in Florida. Two weeks are gone, and always no nick appearance. And suddenly, the "master" is announced. "Nick wants to see you all on the court, near 3 PM" shout the coach who has trained Marat and some of the other youngsters. "He finally appeared" he remember. "I played 15 minutes, with my fellows, and I heard a "Thank you guys", which indicates that the session was ended". Marat Safin has never seen Nick anymore, it's Alla Kournikova, the mother of Anna, installed in the academy since some months, who was in charged to deliver the though of the most famous coach in the world. "Nick don't like your right-hand grip", she revealed to him. The journey in the Peru spent immediately after, to allow him to make up, will not give him the right to stay in Florida. "however, In lima, I reached the semi-final" he remembers. "It was funny, with a coach of the academy, we were gone with a Macedonian, a Mexican, and a French which I don't remember the name. We lodged, with the Mexican, in a family. We were sleeping in the same bed. As he was always crying, I was spending my time at comforting him. Why crying ? What we were living was wonderful. Well, this was the way I felt. I was travelling, we were playing tennis, this was marvellous". Hopefully, this suffering defeat didn't slow down the mysterious banker's charity, who Marat hadn't have the opportunity to met, curiously. During the 1993's autumn, this is the Spain country which was opening wide its arms. "I had to choose between Barcelona and Valencia. I went to the Bruguera academy to bring me an idea, but I stayed there only few minutes, the place didn't please me. On the contrary, in Valencia, I knew instantly, that it was the right one". It's here, in the Penasol academy, that he has met Raphael Mensua, who is now 36 years old, a former Spanish junior champion, winning the Valerio cup, and who was ranked 320 in the world. Since, the two men never quit each other, excepting a 6 months duration, in 1997. In spite of the raining tears he had because he missed his family during the first months of his installation in Spain, and because he was lost in a country where he didn't know yet the language, Marat affirms that this lap of time was the most difficult in his life. "As the banker helped me financially in 1993 to 1997, he decided suddenly to stop giving me money", he revealed. "I had to go back home. I felt bad, really bad. I didn't want to train anymore. I didn't touch a racquet for tree months. "He was in a such bad state" confirms Mensua. "We was calling each other, but I was feeling that he didn't believe in it anymore". The IMG society (International Management Group) specialised, among others, in the managing of certain sporting careers, and whose founder Mark McCormack was, with strange coincidence, the friend of Bruce Rappaport, has finally saved him and advanced him 5000$. This money allowed him to play in the challenger tournament of Espinho, Mensua was there, to see his victory. Mensua came to check different points with Marat. Two month later, he was participating to his first ATP Tour tournament, in Moscow, and became 194e in the world. His career was really taken off�

It took of, we know, in 1998, during a season which saw him, at the end, becoming the youngest who ever finish in the top 50 in the world. There was Rolland Garros, of course, where, ranked 116e in the world hierarchy, and after taking part to the qualifying rounds, he shacked up the tournament in dominating in five sets each time, Andre Agassi, and Gustavo Kuerten, the reigning champion, with 16000 persons in the crowd. Only Cedric Pioline, who, after five enthusiastic sets, stopped the terrific adventure of Marat, but with real cost . There was the Davis cup too, with the matches against the United States in Atlanta where, in the body of an unknown person, he scared Jim Courier in the fifth and decisive match. "Without this spark in the Davis Cup, I would not perhaps be so tough in Roland Garros" he thinks. There was the US Open too, where he gifted himself a sixteenth final place in the US Open. But, there, Pete Sampras was too brilliant for him. "I hadn't any chances against him" he says with a big smile, "Too tough, Sampras! For me, the tournament was already ended before the beginning of the match. My plane ticket was already reserved for the next day".

It's sometimes difficult to know whether Marat Safin is serious, or is kidding. Is he telling the truth when he says that his biggest fear in 1999 is to participate to the satellite tournaments ? Is he kidding, when he says that, if he don't win a Grand Slam title, he won't be disappointed anyway. "You must remind you where he is coming from" soften Raphael Mensua. "It's first goal is to earn money, to get financial safety, for him and for his family. Once he will do this, he will win titles and get interest in his career". Yevgeny Kafelnikov, his compatriot who advises him sometimes, didn't behave a different way, in the beginning of his career. His mind could be extremely disconcerting too." His personality is unsteady" confirms Mensua. "He is nice, but he is aggressive sometimes. He is very extraverted, and he could suddenly shut up for an entire day, because he is angry".

Marat Safin has earned near 600 000$ price money on the court during the year 1998. The beginning of the fortune ? It don't seem to be, no luxury in the small 35 meter square furnished flat which he is renting in the 6th floor of a building of the Calle Chiva. "I do the house cleaning, I wash the dishes, and I do the shopping myself. There is no woman in here". Sylvia, his girl friend, who has recently gifted him an alliance, lives, indeed, too far away, in Pamplona where she is still studying. "I would by a house near" he confides, "and another car, this would be a dream". Thanks to his service who gets over 200 Km/h regularly, and to his powerful forehand and backhand, a Ferrari or a Porsches will soon rejoin his garage. "He has the height, the physic, and the power of the modern player" analyses Georges Deniau . "Moreover, he wants to win, and he is not scared when he has to play decisive points, but he is not enough quick in his moves and executions". Even if his goal is to reach only the ranking 30 in the world in 1999, Safin has the weapon to burn the steps. He has already gone very quickly during this last months, with certain spectacular accidents sometimes, like in Australia. Marat Safin hasn't broken his first car yet. His racquets didn't have the same luck�