There’s a reason we refer to artists as tortured, and Marat Safin is no exception.
Tennis is an aesthetic sport. Matthew McGough of The Boston Globe wrote: “Underlying the cries of ‘en fuego!’ or ‘straight butta’…is another, calmer term that might be used to describe this and other great sports moments of the highest order: beautiful.”
Safin’s game, at its best and even at its worst, is breathtaking. The efficient, crisply hit serve. The enormous wingspan. The exacting volleys. The look to the heavens as he berates himself in Russian, Spanish, or English. The primal scream evoked each time he double-faults. The body. Even his notorious racquet-breaking is raw, honest, and deeply compelling.
Roger Federer famously said that he wishes to play beautifully for the fans. Safin shares that quality with his friend, but Federer also has the “do whatever it takes to win” mentality. Marat doesn’t.
And, so, for Safin, the game, the set, and the match are not scored by points. They’re scored by movements, much like brushstrokes on canvas. Every misstep, every errant splash of paint, throws a curve from which, often, he can’t recover.
Go back and watch the Charlie Rose interview in 2000 as Safin discusses his defeat of Pete Sampras in Toronto: “I think he made me a present there, because he served a double fault on his match point, and he served double fault on my match point. So I can’t tell that I beat him.” Marat didn’t feel he could claim true victory because the very last point wasn’t a winner.
Watch any match from the last ten years. Look at how frustrated he gets when he loses his serve. Then, by contrast, see how relatively calm he is after a win - a small glimmer of a smile, a little nod to the crowd.
You rarely see Safin pulling out an Ocho Cinco touchdown dance or releasing the same kind of energy in victory as he does when he’s mad. It’s not about the outcome, after all. It’s about perfectionism.
The reason, perhaps, is that Safin experienced the elusive “perfect match” once, too early. He was a 20-year-old ingénue with an improbable win over Sampras in the 2000 U.S. Open. His career, though long, has arguably been downhill from there, as he tried despite injury to reach that level of greatness with every. single. backhand.
His most lethal opponent, more often than not, is only himself. For Safin, the competition itself is boring. “I am not a player,” he says.
Instead, it’s the honing of his craft, the chasing of aces, that’s kept the man with a fear of flying hopping flights to Madrid, Melbourne, and Miami the last nine years.
This week, Safin will carry his rackets to Arthur Ashe Stadium for his last Grand Slam appearance. He will bid his final adieu to tennis fans at Bercy in November. Where, then, do we place the big Russian in the long line of tennis greats?
He will certainly be tapped for the Hall of Fame, but how will his game be stacked against the likes of Agassi, Ivanisevic, or Nadal? The answer isn’t simple, just as judging an art contest is often futile.
Viewing tennis as a game, one competitor wins by virtue of points. Considering it as an art form, each athlete must be judged through a different set of lenses. Nadal may play in striking black and white and do it stunningly, but Safin performs in cross-processed color, entrancing in a very different way.
Like any storied artist, he is an enigma. So much of what makes Marat Safin legendary has little to do with his conduct on the court and everything to do with his personality outside it. He is at the same time larger than life and quietly private.
Friend Arnaud Casagrande once described him as the James Dean of tennis, while Marc Rosset has said before that Marat would immediately “sign up to be number one and at the same time unknown.”
We should be careful not to, as is the norm in the sports world, focus only on his statistics. Forget the win-loss record. Forget the number of titles. Forget the number of Grand Slam semis he reached.
Think back, instead, to the excruciatingly beautiful and wicked down-the-line backhand, the deranged yell, and the shy smile. Recall the endearing, protective tone he used when discussing his parents and the more recent defense of his top-ranked sister.
Remember the thousands of autographs he signed with grace despite debilitating setbacks. Count the number of fans who bought tickets just to catch a glimpse of him practice or who stayed up to all hours to watch his matches halfway around the world on Internet feeds.
And then, there is the wit. Safin is press conference soundbite gold. From the side-splitting: “Never give up. Last year I was trying to give up but I couldn’t.” To the profound: “We live because of the dreams.”
What other player has been caught reading during changeovers? What other sportsman takes time off during the season to climb Cho Oyu? What other athlete would keep his under-the-radar manager, turn down lucrative endorsements, and declare, “Why have more, when this is enough at the moment?”
Marat Safin wouldn’t want to be immortalized as a god or a hero, titles his Safinettes will likely bestow. “I did my job, and I got a beautiful cup and a beautiful cheque,” he says. “That’s it. I didn’t change the world.”
When the goodbye comes this fall, let’s remember him as an artist. In that sense, as Martina Navratilova said, “he is perfect.”
Photo © Andrea Nay, All Rights Reserved