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Safin says goodbye

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Jonathan Overend | 07:44 UK time, Thursday, 12 November 2009

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.

Marat Safin
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.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Perhaps the greatest character ever to have played the game, and year in year out, the fans' favourite on the tour. The guy was pure box office, guaranteed to draw a big crowd.

    With his talent, he could and probably should have won more slams, and he would admit he'd have loved to have won Roland Garros. But you cannot discount what he contributed to the tour, and he will be missed.

    Couple of things I think you should have mentioned in this career obit, assuming Safin doesn't think about a come-back... (1) He almost single-handedly won Russia's first Davis Cup in 2002. There was a neat symmetry to the fact his career ended at the Palais Omnisports, the scene of one of the greatest moments in his career. (Can anyone forget Boris Yeltsin whooping it up in the bleachers?) And (2), he is now, in terms of tennis proficiency, becoming a little less Marat and a little more Dinara's brother. Mats Wilander reckons that this as much as anything may have brought forward Safin's decision to retire.

    But he's irreplaceable, and I rather hope the tour finds a way to retain him, or at least the appeal he brings to the sport.

  • Comment number 2.

    Hey, all power to Safin on being himself. Posterity may remember him as an "unfulfilled talent" or some such rot, but the thing about Posterity is - it's irrelevant to the person concerned. Safin had a good time, and has earned enough to ensure that the rest of his life is comfortable. That's all that matters.

    The press puppies can yap all they want, but Safin's a cat - he don't give a shit.

    PS: Why were the media so gaga about Cantona's trawler quote? Were they offended that they were described as merely seagulls instead of, say, vultures?

  • Comment number 3.

    Pretty sad...for such young talent that showed huge potential!!
    SMSMediaUganda.

  • Comment number 4.

    Absolutely brilliant at times. In my opinion he was probably the only one who could have challenged Federer in his peak. He was one of those who play the game for sheer excitement of playing it. One may loose one may win but never let winning or loosing overwhelm him. Best of luck Marat for your next stint whatever it may be.

  • Comment number 5.

    An interesting character in a game that doesn't exude them. Good luck.

  • Comment number 6.

    I think he was a real character and will be badly missed. He will look back and think he had a good career. He made a lot of money, traveled the world and never took himself too seriously. He was always colourful in a time of many robots. You never knew what to expect.

  • Comment number 7.

    I think he fulfilled his potential. Yes, he was technically good enough to win more Grand Slams, but mentally he wasn't - in fact, in some ways it was remarkable he held it all together to even win the two he did.

    So, all in all, a great career, and a particularly important one in that gap between the Sampras/Agassi and Federer/Nadal eras when men's tennis seemed pretty empty.

  • Comment number 8.

    Maybe he should have bagged a few more slams, but he got two and that's two more than alot of fantastic players.

    A great character who brought his personality onto the court all the time. On his day (or depending on which side of the bed he got out of), he was the one player who could take out Sampras, Agassi, Fed or Rafa. I, for one, will miss him. Tennis always needs a strong personality.

  • Comment number 9.

    Looking forward to seeing Safin in the Black Rock Masters next year :-) .....

    And a case of unfulfilled potential? Not really. So few players dominate year in year out, and there is always soemone ready to knock you down. He did what he wanted to do, and why not? And thank God he was what he was because tennis is full of dull and dour personalities on court. True, the stakes are high in these ATP matches but many pros can take a leaf out of Safin's book and take themselves a little less seriously....are you reading this Mr Nadal?

  • Comment number 10.

    He will certainly be missed. A colourful character who had great talent and allowed his personality onto the court like few others. I wrote something about him on my blog as well, be sure to check it out if interested.

    wasimebrahim.blogspot.com

  • Comment number 11.

    Great to see the comments above supporting the character that Marat brought to the circuit.

    Seems to suggest that the question of whether he fulfilled his potential is irrelevant. After all, how do you really measure potential and take in to account skill, mental state and desire as well as luck with injuries?

    Agassi won more Slams, but I think perhaps Safin enjoyed his career more. Who are we to say which is more important?

  • Comment number 12.

    Marat said it best: he could not be other than what he was. If he was more dedicated, more ruthless and had better on court concentration, maybe he could have been Federer, or Sampras. But being Marat has been good enough for Marat himself. And, in the end will have to suffice for the rest of us. The game will miss him.

  • Comment number 13.

    Marat is once in a lifetime. Such guys come once in a while.

    I would rate him above anybody who played tennis just due to the way he behaved on court and off it. What you see is what you get. Nothing hidden in him.

    He played for the fans showing all the emotions that go through the highs and lows of playing tennis at a professional level.

    I have been a great fan of Mcenroe, Becker, Goran who were charismatic players. But Marat is way above them.

    As Federer aptly put it: "Marat is a wild wild personality on court and off it and thats why we love him"

    Definitely a huge loss for tennis & tennis fans all around the world.

  • Comment number 14.

    Safin was a fantastic player and character but I have to say that he probably should have won more than 2 Slams. Ok, he played in the eras of Sampras & Federer, but he beat them both in Slams. Probably a combination of attitude & injury let him down a little. He will be missed, however.

  • Comment number 15.

    As a kid I only got to see Tennis when Wimbledon aired on the BBC and Safin wasn't one of the particular highlights due to his usually short stay in town. But when I started watching the sport more it was hard not to love the guy. His manic temperament and the sheer anger that used to be displayed on court was great entertainment. I got banned from my tennis club as a kid for throwing racquets into the net and this was a professional guy who didn't care one bit...he just was and always will be, his own person.

    Lastly though the skill of the man, on his day was undeniable. That Federer semi-final at Oz 05...wow. One of the best matches I have seen and I would love to know what everyones opinions are about Fed's form that tournament. Safin was performing 100% but was Fed close to his best? I do believe that he was and I do believe Safin on his day could beat anyone.

    I do just hope the man is remembered. He has been such a character in the last decade and I can only speak from experience by saying he has enthused me into this sport. Oh and who else on tour could have such fit women in the players box at a grand slam and still make the final haha!!

  • Comment number 16.

    safin's blog a couple years ago (on atptour.com i think??) was the best profi athlete blog i've ever read. true, funny, and endearing it was a pleasure to read...in this day and age in sport it's fun to see a top athlete tell the truth! kinda like mickelson did about tiger's equipment years ago before his reps reeled him in the next day and the aplologies came...

  • Comment number 17.

    Safin was a great but hugely frustrating talent. He seemed to have an incredible number of 2nd and 3rd round losses since as early as 2002.
    He had tremendous laser like ground strokes when on top form. And his serving in that 2005 Australian Open final win against Lleyton Hewitt was incredible in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th sets.
    And who could forget his run to the 2008 Wimbledon semi's?

    I'm trying to break into journalism and would love any feedback on my writing at http://anatomyofreason.blogspot.com/.

  • Comment number 18.

    Safin owes me a pair of tickets - I missed my flight because of his semifinal match against Federer in 2005 Australian Open. I always liked him because of his personality, and the reason that he defeated Sampras in the US final. He was an excellent player, very talented but at the same time very erratic. During the last 5-6 years he was the only person i would not have hated for beating Federer. I think he should be a success in Hollywood (just need to polish his accent), at least I would love to watch his first movie.

  • Comment number 19.

    Perhaps the most memorable stage was his Australian Open win in 2005 after been written off as a one grand slam winner. The extraordinary semifinal win over a seemingly unstoppable Federer on a hard court on the way was truly special. sadly persistent injuries limited his abilities.
    I would say he should have very little regrets considering the injuries that plagued him and still be able to come up with two major titles.

 

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