Monday, March 9, 2009

The Agony and the Ecstasy: Why Marat Safin will always be my favourite player

The Following article is from the August, 2005 issue of GQ Magazine written by John Jeremiah Sullivan. Don't let the length put you off, its one of the most poignant insightful articles and it sums up my feelings perfectly:

He has been called the purest physical talent in the history of the game. So why doesn't Marat Safin dominate the tennis world? John Jeremiah Sullivan explores the dark psyche of tennis's tormented genius.

I've hated him, you know. I've hated that wack-job six-foot-four-inch beautiful genius Tatar. Oh, never for long. Never with consistency that might have led to true renunciation. But there have been times when I wanted to see him... well, not suffer - because i know he suffers; he tells us so. It's one of this words - suffering: "I just suffer a bit more"; "I was suffering too much"; "That's why I am suffering"; "Why should I suffer?" Not that, then, but to see him humbled. Yes - scolded, even. I'm watching at home, let's say, and he's just netted a midcourt forehand approach shot for the twelfth time in the set, having gotten all freaked out about some completely inconsequential baseline error six games earlier, and maybe he's talking to himself, but loud enough for the mikes to pick up, saying things like "Why you fucking run? Why not you make heem fucking run?" when from nowhere comes a tiny, creaking voice. The crowd goes still. A filthy crone, a babushka, has materialized in the service box, and she's waving a bony finger at him. "You," she hisses, "you were born the greatest of them all, and look at you, muttering to yourself like a ??????. (russian word, sorry I don't have crylics to type it out) You betray your gift, Marat Mikhailovich, and now you will know what it means to suffer."

Safin could answer - has pretty much answered, in fact, when a statement along those lines has been put to him by some reporter - that he's done so much, that in eight years he's been a professional tennis player, he's won two Grand Slams and made the finals of two other, has won thirteen other ATP tournaments, has twice (briefly) been number one in the world, and has with some consistency stayed among the top ten; that he's played in not a few truly classic matches, has overcome injuries, and has futhermore been a boon to the sport insofar as his personality, his looks, and his behavior on and off the court have given us something to talk about, to get worked up about. He could retire, as he more than threatened to do (the first time, reportedly, when he was 20), could install himself in a dacha somewhere with "a kid in one hand and a Tsingtao in the other" (as he once described his ideal future during a press conference in China), could leave behind forever the game that has been his love and tormentor since childhood, the game that may have saved him - as he mused at this year's French Open - from a life spent "picking up bottles in a park in Moscow," and no one would have grounds on which to fault him. We would do right to thank him, in fact we would follow the game.

But I've never been able to bring myself to feel this way. It's partly because of a mystifying pattern that has marked Safin's career from the start, of doing something magnificent, and then immediately falling apart for a period of months, if not years. Each of what once could call the three watershed moments of his career - his "Who the hell is that kid?" win over Andre Agassi in the first round of the 1998 French Open, which introduced him to the tennis-watching world; his victory in the 2000 US Open final over Pete Sampras, when he played such frighteningly perfect tennis that some people, including his former coach the Swedish champion Mats Wilander, think it might have permanently messed with his head; and his semifinal, then final, wins in this year's Australian Open (against Roger Federer and Lleyton Hewitt, respectively), matches in which the level of play was accurately described by ESPN commentator Cliff Drysdale as "inhuman" - each of these has been followed hard upon by a period of decline, or atleast once in which the virtuosity he's able to summon goes missing.

It's partly that, yes, but it's also - more so - that when he is one, he's a god. The beauty of Safin's tennis is the beauty of overwhelming power and precision, less clever than crushing. He's not a scrapper; you won't see him pull off too many magical saves; he doesn't adapt too well, midmatch, doesn't beat players at their own games - what he does do, can do, instead, is render his opponents' games irrelevant.

There's a certain one-two move that, when Safin's demons have temporarily left him alone, he likes to execute. It begins with a two-fisted backhand approach shot from the ad-court corner, just inside the baseline. He'll move up on the ball and sort of hop on his right leg, as if he's stubbed his toe, teetering as he tears the shot crosscourt. The landing from the little jump becomes itself the beginning of his sprint toward the net, during which his movement is strangely flowing and catlike for an athlete of his size. He's carrying so much mass and inertia forward that you think he's going to run right through the net, but then he pounds to a stop at the last second and performs the daintiest little touch-drop volley.

The effect of this maneuver, visually speaking, is a bit like seeing a pterodactyl that was flying straight at you suddenly shape-shift into a moth and flutter away.

It's this, and a dozen other little things like it, that can make you clutch your head over Safin when he's in one of his lost periods, inexplicably bowing out before guys who shouldn't be able to stay on court with him. But of course, those very qualities that make his game so dangerous are the ones that make it so fragile, or unusually vulnerable to psychological swings, because in order to play the kind of tennis that Safin correctly considers "his game," one has to, as they say, "dictate play" relentlessly, and in order to do that - against the best players in the world - one has to believe it's possible. The question, then, of why Safin can never maintain this belief for long is one that haunts all Safinites(sic).

I think it was partly in anger, craving answers, that I went to meet him at the Hamburg clay-court event in May. Since the glory of the Australian Open, there had been Dubai, Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Rome, in none of which he made it past the third round. His own manager has expressed bafflement in the face of this latest collapse. His current coach, Peter Lundgren, when I'd asked how winning a Grand Slam could make a man lose his confidence (a cause-and-effect process that Safin described as "inevitable"), said simply, "It's amazing." But if i could get the ****er alone for a few minutes, force him to explain...


It's my feeling that Safin's relationship to the game is fundamentally aesthetic. He may occasionally bandy about that tiresome tennis shibboleth "result," which gets used about 1,500 times per press conference (as in "I made a good result," "The important thing is to get a result," etc.), but I don't think he really cares so much about winning qua winning. Oh, I mean, he cares passionately about it, of course, but there's another, deeper level at which what he cares about most is playing beautiful tennis, which means, for Safin, playing perfectly. That he has occasionally achieved this is sort of cruel, when you think about it. It's like Wilander said, when I asked him about his idea that the US Open final against Sampras in 2000 had, for a time, hurt Safin: "It turned out to be the worse thing.... Every time he stepped on a court, he expected to play that way."

That way... Safin was 20 years old, almost coltish. He won in straight sets - a startling enough statistic on its own - against a man who hadn't lost a Grand Slam final in five years (and who'd been in plenty of them); but it was the seeming nonchalance with which he did it that caused mouths to hang open. He was bending in passing shots like he'd found a way to mess with the laws of physics, dropping in thousand-pound aces, then moving right along as if they were practice balls. Dick Enberg, doing commentary, burst out at one point, "The game isn't that easy! It cannot be that easy!" After the match, Sampras called him "the future of the game," and that was the word on Safin for a time, till suddenly it wasn't. Not that he ever really faded, as a threat - but he wasn't supposed to have been a threat. He was suppose to have been a dominator. That was the script.

There's something he said during the trophy ceremony after that Sampras match, something i didn't notice at the time but that sticks out now. They were trying to get his take on the match, and he said he couldn't really remember the match, that he remembered only the very last game, when he'd had to serve it out. And here is the curious thing: That's the only game in which Safin played less than perfectly. Sampras even had a break point on him in that game. It was like the whole rest of the match - the astonishing, gorgeous part - hadn't even existed.

Well that's precisely how true perfectionism works. Contrary to what the rest of us may assume, your clinical, bona fide perfectionist doesn't especailly give a crap about the perfection itself. That's just the way it's suppose to go. Nothing to get all gleeful about. The screwups, the moments - the countless moments - when the performance is out of phase with the natural order: Those you notice, those you can get emotional about. And this, I really do think, is the reason that although Safin's reactions to his mistakes are perhaps unprecedented in their fury (and I'm not forgetting McEnroe here, but McEnroe was bratty, and Marat Safin, when he's shrieking or breaking rackets or destrying near-court objects, is sort of scary), his deportment in victory tends to be conspicuously muted and unimpressive.

You could see this on display after the most recent Australian Open final, against Hewitt. Safin had so many reasons just to go completely ape-shit after that match, to sob, to drop his shorts (like he did in last year's French Open), to throw a ball girl into the stands, whatever he wanted. In addition to not having won a Grand Slam final since his first, in 2000, he'd lost in the final of this particular event twice in the preceeding three years. Just to reach Hewitt, he'd had to get past Federer, the current messiah of tennis. That had been a match for the ages - "the match of the year," as they're still saying on TV - an ungodly tense four-and-a-half-hour five-setter that saw match points for both players before the final game but that ended with Federer literally on his hands and knees, crawling toward the net in disbelief. And now here he was, having won the one-hundredth Australian Open against yet another favored opponent, having silenced armies of critics (they'd called him "the one-Slam wonder"), and I might mention that he'd just turned 25. And you know what he did? He gave the weakest little fist pump. I don't really know how to describe the gesture. It was like, "Cool, that went well." Sure you might say, maybe he doesn't like to show his emotions so much. To which one might reply, Have you ever watched a Marat Safin match?

Back in the car, Safin wasn't having any of that. He's over his perfectionism, you see. "You start to realize," he said, "that apart from perfection, if you want to win, you have to be satisfied with the win. You don't have to play. And the luck..."

Luck? What good were my pitiful moves against such fathoms of tragic denial?


The closest I come to forcing the point with Safin, back in the limo, is when we're talking about Roger Federer, the 24-year-old Swiss master and uninterrupted world number one for going on a year and a half. In a way, Federer is casting a shadow over the career of every professional tennis player right now, but the comparison with Safin is particularly pointed, because Safin is often mentioned as the one player who possesses the sheer physical genius to challenge Federer steadily, the one who could not just upset Federer now and then but maybe rival him.

"Federer," Safin says, "he cannot lose, because he has everything that God gave him, he used everything. Me, I have my weaknesses. My problems. That's me. But I can't fight nature."

"But is consistency a goal of yours?" I ask him. "Do you want to be more like Federer?"

"Of course I want to be," he says. "But it is difficult. It's difficult because... I'm a different person from Federer. Nobody can be that consistent."

"But you beat him."

"Well, yeah, no..."

I'd sensed my opening - tiny as it was - and damned if I wasn't about to exploit it. "You beat him when he was playing his best tennis," I say, "On a surface he likes-"

"One match doesn't change-"

"Well, the five-set semifinal of a Grand Slam. That's not just a-"

I am aware - Safin is, too - that I'm no longer talking as a journalist but as a demented fan.

"Yeah," Safin says, "but he won another couple of tournaments afterward. Me... Look, Federer is not an example! He has a different way of thinking. That's why he's the way he is. I'm a different person; I've been like this for many years."

For maybe half a minute, we're silent, I'm wondering - sincerely asking myself - if I'd ever really want him to be more like Federer. Isn't there something about such regular perfection that leaves one a little cold? The thought takes me back to my days playing third singles on a public high school team in Ohio, that feeling I'd get when we'd make it to districts, all confident after having won the city, and suddenly I'd be up against some kid with country-club strokes, and it'd feel like swinging a paddle underwater. Safin knows that feeling. As unapproachably great as he is, he knows it on a regular basis. He does suffer. Isn't that why I can't really hate him?

"My time will come," Safin says. "You can't forget how to play tennis. It's just waiting for the moment." And then he's climbing out the car, on his way back to the tour, on his way to losing at the French Open in the fourth round and at Wimbledon in the third round and after that - I refuse to doubt it - glory.

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