Safin shatters more than just reputations

Source: Irish Times
Publication date: 2001-05-28

A year ago on Court Central, Marat Safin walloped a forehand so far wide of the tramlines the French Open crowd giggled. He turned in disgust and shattered his racquet on the ground, shipped a code violation and carried on the game with an unusual blend of inspiration and petulance.

On his first year on tour, Safin admitted to breaking 48 racquets or more than one a tournament. The belief at Roland Garros was that he was being paid for every destructive outburst. The marketeers even noted that the public enjoyed the histrionics and that players should be encouraged to copy the six foot, six inch Russian. The laws on racquet abuse were relaxed.
In some minds, here was another East European clone. A Goran Ivanisevic with a head full of demons and a penchant for craking up come the Grand Slams. Safin the racquet smasher finished last year as the world number one player, as US Open Champion and at 21 the undisputed Next Big Thing.

He has a crew cut, the physique of a light heavyweight boxer, savy streetwise eyes and somewhat uniquely in tennis, can in that lugubrious Russian way dole out irony as easily as cliches.

The combination makes him one of the games stars, a cool European in a land of college jocks and corn-fed American dolls. As the Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi generation begin their fade towards luxurious retirement, Safin has a mind and the game to fill the vaccum.

"It is a little bit of a difficult time for us new guys," he says. "Because no one actually knows us very well still. They think that Pete and Andrei are the only players to see. They don't realise we are around yet. We still need them for a while longer so people still come and the prize money stays high. When the fans know us then those guys can go quietly."

Money oils the machine and Safin as much as any player knows the value of named players. That's something that could cost him this week even with the help of three-times French Open winner Mats Wilander, who he has with him as coach.

Safin's back problem has made his run into Paris anything but auspicious. Picking up an injury in Dubai in February he kept playing and playing, badly. The reason was simple. Ending 2000 Safin was given a $1.4 million bonus by the ATP which he will get only if he plays in all the Grand Slam events and Masters series over two years.

A withdrawl would have cost him $350,000, two withdrawls $700,000 and three his entire bonus. So playing in the first five Masters Series of the year, his body took the punishment as his wallet fattened.

"What I would have lost not playing was so huge that I didn't even ask myself about it," he told French newspaper L'Equipe. "People can criticise but if they were me they would do the same. You know, it's only the beginning of my career and I can't do like Pete Sampras (estimated earnings $100 million) who doesn't have to count."

For all of his ferocious will to win and his primary ambition to line his pockets Safin remains the only player on the modern tour ever to be pulled up for tanking (throwing a match by not trying). At the Australian Open last year he was fined $2,000 for catching the serve of South African Grant Stafford and tossing it back to him under arm. But that ill-considered disobedience is part of the attraction.

It's just one of the several contradictions he has become. A year ago at the Indian Wells tournament, Safin was considering giving up. On the invitation of one of his agents, compatriot Andrei Chesnokov arrived to watch him practice for an hour. "His mind was not on court," said Chesnokov. "He was talking to people as they went bye, always looking around for what was going on. And he was trying to hit everyball as hard as he could."

In a few months Safin had moved from 123 in the world to nine. In the way of tennis Safin departed from Chesnokov, apparently without a call, and Wilander arrived.

When Wilander was asked why he took on a player who can occasionally unleash the demons, he answered: "Because he's very curious. He always asks `did you go out last night? Where is a good place to go.' You need that. Your brain cannot stop expanding just because you are a tennis professional. I like the glint in his eye. Marat has this kind of Tiger Woods mentality, he knows that the moment itself will fire him."

Along with Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Andrei Stoliarov, Michail Youzhny, Anna Kournikova, Elena Dementieva and Tatiana Panova, the bourgeoisie revolution has paid off handsomely for the country that once shunned the game but Safin, despite his dollars, has not lost touch.

"Do you find it hard being a star," he was asked by a fan last year. "The stars are only in the sky," he answered.