Safin says goodbye
It was a gloomy Thursday evening in Paris, May 2004. The light was closing in and the second-round French Open match was locked at two sets all. The fans were jumping and the court was rocking.
And then Marat Safin pulled his shorts down.
For all his wonderful play, his major titles, his racquet abuse and his post-match hilarity, this schoolboy prank is the moment which will always remind me of Marat Safin.
Why did he pull his shorts down? Nobody really knows, but it was instinctive, it was crazy, it was Marat.
He had played a brilliant shot - a sliding drop-shot winner if memory serves me right - and clearly a Henman fist-pump, a Hewitt drain-pull, a Nadal leap-punch or a Federer finger-wag would have been inadequate and inappropriate.
Hence the removal of the shorts. Or "pants" in American.
"Marat, what possessed you to pull your pants down?" enquired the man from the Miami Bugle afterwards.
"It was a great point for me," Safin explained. "I felt like pulling my pants down. What's bad about it?"
People chuckled and didn't really know what to say to that, so I think we moved onto the merits of Mantilla's backhand.
Marat Safin was unique and tennis will be a poorer sport without him.
His retirement was confirmed here in Paris on Wednesday when he was knocked out of his final scheduled tournament by Juan Martin del Potro.
Safin was given a big send-off after his final match in Paris
He smiled as he walked to the net, having played his last meaningful tennis shot, and the crowd rose inside the Palais Omnisports. The Russian collected a special memento and past and present players came out of the locker room to join the acclaim.
Minutes later he was striding into the interview room, his second home over the years, and actually thanked the media for all their help and support over the years. After we'd picked ourselves up from the floor, struck down by the feather of compliment, we were entertained by more Safin wisdom.
Would he compete on the seniors tour in 10 years' time? "If I'm still alive..."
Would he write a book? "No chance, all my secrets will stay with me..."
How would you qualify your career in one word? "Great..."
But we have been used to this sort of material over the years. Safin has the keys to the gates of soundbite city. Not all of it makes sense, but it's better than the usual garbage about "one match at a time..."
Take his press conference in Toronto, July 2004. Safin's very own Cantona-style meltdodown:
"I'm not fighting with myself. Oh, my God. That's how I am. You know the story of the hippo? The hippo comes to the monkey and said: 'Listen, I'm not a hippo.' So, he paint himself like a zebra. He said, 'But he's still a hippo.' He said, 'But look at you, you're painted like a zebra but you are a hippo.' So then he goes, 'I want to be a little parrot.' So he puts the colours on him and he comes to the monkey and said, 'Sorry, but you are a hippo.' This is who I am and he's happy being a hippo."
Someone actually got paid real money to sit there and note all that down.
But for all the talk, what about the walk? The tennis career which entertained us, enthralled us and, for a while, had the world at its feet?
When he won the US Open in 2000, demolishing Pete Sampras in the final, Safin announced himself to the world. Brutal groundstrokes, a firecracker forehand, and - at the time, for his size - a wonderful mover around the tennis court.
He was a fixture in the top 10 between summer 2000 and summer 2003 and then, after a bout of injury misfortune, he added a second major championship at the Australian Open including, prior to beating Lleyton Hewitt in the final, a stunning semi-final win over the seemingly-unstoppable Roger Federer.
So how do we sum that up?
Should we say he was a wild talent and he won two major titles?
Or should we say he was a wild talent yet he only won two major titles?
Did he fulfil his potential? The inevitable debate below will be interesting to read!
Most players would kill for two majors and let's not forget that Safin's career spanned two generations of greatness.
He competed with Sampras and Agassi, and he also competed with Federer and Nadal. Was a return of two majors really that bad considering the opposition?
On the other hand, how did he let Thomas Johansson win the 2002 Aussie Open? Why did he never convince himself he could do well at Wimbledon? Did he lose focus too often with his ranting, did this actually cost him in big matches?
Regrets? A few, but not too many. He surely retires happy because he worked hard, he had fun, he won trophies, he got the girls.
And so the rest of Marat Safin's life begins, away from the all-consuming tennis bubble, and good luck to him.
As he once said: "If I was the type of person who had tennis, tennis, tennis all the time and I went to bed and ended up dreaming about tennis, I would go nuts."
Now he's out and he can dream of other stuff, and I bet it's a lot of fun.