Safin in the air is cool

25th August 2002

The Russian offers sparkle within a cast of one-dimensional US Open characters, writes Alix Ramsay.

For one who is supposed to be wasting his talent, Marat Safin has not done too badly. He is still but 22, has won a Grand Slam tournament, has appeared in the final of another, banked more than 7 million dollars in prize money, and is ranked 2nd in the world. If only he had eaten his greens and done his homework, who knows what he could have achieved by now?

The Russian thought he had cracked it two years ago. He began the year charged with "not giving his best effort" - tanking, for want of a better word - during the Australian Open. Then, with a change of coach and a new attitude, he started winning tournaments and marched on New York and the US Open with nothing to lose. He had a sneaking suspicion that he could beat anyone, given half a chance. Eventually, he overcame Pete Sampras in the final, and suddenly he was one of the big boys.

On occasion he has shown signs of rediscovering that form, but it has not lasted long. In Melbourne in Jan, the path seemed clear towards the Aust Open, but it did not happen. Confused messages from his doctor left him feeling lethargic in the semi-finals, a bevy of blondes who followed his every footstep proved a distraction, and Thomas Johansson proved too strong in the final when Safin seemed unable to hit a barn door at 10 paces.

Now he is heading back to Flushing Meadow with his confidence wearing thin, and the world whispering "wastrel" as he passes. That is his greatest problem - everyone seems to know what is best for his 6ft 4in, 14 st affable frame. They tut-tut - if only he has a regular coach.... if only he practised more.... if only he would concentrate.... And they are driving him potty.

"Im living my life" he reflects. "Im not living the life of anybody else. I know what im doing, and ive been doing it for a long time. The better I get, the more people like this I get. They advise me to get a coach, to do like this, to live like this; I should do this, I should wake up at this time or go to sleep at that time; dont eat this. If I were winning five Grand Slams and being No1 for a long time, the people will still say that I can be much better. You have to live with this, and I try not to react to that".

Not that Safin is complaining, merely explaining. He is eloquent in several languages, funny and a charmer. Unlike so many professional sportsmen, he does not take himself too seriously.

"Im doing bad things, Im doing good things, and im satisfied with that. Im like any other person in the world who wants to live his life. Of course im doing stupid things, of course im making mistakes in my life, so I dont want to be the centre of attention. Im okay with myself".

That said, he cannot help being the focus of attention - and not only to his blonde admirers. He is a big man with a big game and, on his day, he has the beating of anyone. On a bad day he smashes his racquet, apppeals to the heavens for guidance, and does not so much wear his heart on his sleeve as give it to the crowd for safe keeping. He is a celebrity whether he likes it or not, though he maintains: "A star is in the sky - and thats it".

His coaching history is rich and varied. From the early days with Rafael Mensua in Spain, he has moved through Alexei Chesnokov and Alexander Volkov, stopping briefly to take advice from Mats Wilander and Tony Pickard. At the moment he is working with Amit Noah, known in the locker room as "Armpit".

Two years ago, life was simple: happy days when he was one of the wave of young hopefuls, but a time when no-one expected anything of him. Now he goes back with a reputation to live up to; now he is supposed to be able to win. And that can be hard to live up to, especially when you have to play Nicholas Kiefer in the 1st round, and possible Gustavo Kuerten in the 2nd.

"Its a Grand Slam, you want to win a Grand Slam" he confirms. "Im counting the Grand Slams. I have one title, and one final. Its nothing, but every time I play in a Grand Slam, there is extra motivation to win it. Sometimes its difficult to play because you want is so badly that it just blocks you; you cant give your best. And also to finish No 1 in the world, that what keeps my motivated in tennis.

"But you cannot play with the pressure, you cannot play great tennis with the pressure. Its difficult. Every time you go out on the court, already you are thinking: 'I have to win this match.' Nobody has to win this match, you can lose this match - its 50-50. It depends how well you play. Thats all."

He knows that he can win, and he definitely wants to win, but whether he will reach the second week or not is anybody's guess. That is the beauty of Safin. All he insists on is the freedom to enjoy his life as he sees fit. He is young, he is talented and he is good looking - give the boy a break.

"You never know what's going to happen in your life, and if you dont enjoy it now, when are you going to enjoy? When you are 30 and when you are 40, its already too late because your best years are between 20 and 40. So you have to try to have fun. Just enjoy it and do whatever you like, and just listen to the people closest to you. You cant listen to everyone. Just live, just enjoy"

In a world of one-dimensional money-makers, tennis needs the character of Safin more that Safin needs tennis. His philosophy may not win him the title in 2 weeks time, but no-one can argue with the engaging logic.