Marat Safin's Greatest Rival

Rob YorkSenior Writer IJanuary 21, 2009

This is the story of a rivalry.

It probably began in September 2000, when a young Russian tennis player oozing with athletic ability fought his way to the end of the U.S. Open. There, he was pitted against a great champion who’d just set a new record for Grand Slam victories.

The oddsmakers gave him little chance; after all, he was 20 years old and in his first major final, whereas the great champion had triumphed in that situation 13 times before. The pressure ought to have been too much for the young Russian.

Except it wasn’t: He didn’t just ooze athletic ability that day, he demonstrated it. The young Russian’s straight-set win over tennis’ grandest champion shocked the tennis experts, but gave them an exciting possibility to ponder. The name “Marat Safin” was still a new one, but based on his U.S. Open display, it was one tennis fans thought they’d see a lot of.

He won more titles that year, and went into the year-end championships as the top-ranked player. To finish No. 1, all the young man had to do was win three matches.

He won two, and then faced his biggest challenge yet: He either had to beat the great champion, the best player of the 1990s a second time, or beat the second-best ‘90s player on the next. Both were tall tasks, but the pundits were sure he recognized the opportunity and wouldn’t let it slip. If he lost, he’d go down fighting.

They were right: He went out fighting his greatest rival, just not the one the pundits were thinking of. In four sets against the two great players he faced that weekend, the young Russian surrendered 24 games, and won 11. He would not finish the year No. 1 for 2000, and a decisive blow in the rivalry had been struck.

The young Russian struggled through most of the next year, winning only one event by December. By the 2002 Australian Open, he finally looked ready to be reliable, reaching his second major final. There, he faced a Swede whose game had many of the same attributes as the young Russian’s, but a lot less of its brilliance. The experts had practically engraved the name “Marat Safin” on the trophy.

Except the Swede had a good day, swinging away, going for his shots and making them. The young Russian had an average day but was being beaten, and it was clear he had no backup plan for dealing with a hot opponent. He went down that day, and the name “Marat Safin” went in the runner-up slot instead.

That year ahead was full of ups and downs: He reached a lot of semis and finals, but didn’t win an event until near the end of the year. He finished with one title, and that was one more than he’d win in the year ahead.

2003 began with injury, and he had to quit in Australia. When asked if he felt disappointed by the outcome, his answer was revealing:

“Yeah,” he said. “Kinda.”

At this point, one side of the rivalry had a commanding lead.

He spent much of that year recovering from his ailment, and let the name “Marat Safin” recede from the minds of the tennis-viewing public. They found others to follow: especially the young Swiss who won Wimbledon. The Swiss’ svelte build, combined with his pony tail, made him look like an artist in Nikes. It was an appropriate appearance, as his shots were works of great imagination.

By the start of 2004, the name “Marat Safin” was on no one’s mind – just where the young Russian wanted it. He fought his way to the final, before falling to the Swiss Artist. Just by getting that far, he set himself up for expectations.

That would never do, so he spent much of 2004 in flux. He lost early at Wimbledon, and his post-match remarks suggested he hated the tournament so much he’d never come back. At the U.S. Open he lost in round 1 to another Swede, one whose game also bore many superficial resemblances to his own. He was booed by New Yorkers as he left, but his stony face indicated that he cared little for what they expected him to do.

He then ended 2004 by winning the year’s final two Masters Series events and losing a thriller against the Swiss Artist in the year-end championships.

In Australia at the start of 2005, he reached the semifinals against that same Swiss, whose now medium-length hair made him look like a tennis champion. This was now the appropriate look, as the Swiss was setting new standards that generations of tennis players would be compared to.

Since this Swiss Champion was the winner of three majors in the year prior, a match between him and the young Russian was expected to be a contest between potential unfulfilled and potential realized. In the now years-long rivalry, one side was taking a serious beating.

The talent-oozing Russian edged out the Swiss, though, and proceeded to win his second major. In doing so, he raised oddsmakers’ hopes that he would be the rival The Swiss Champion was missing. In the face of these expectations, the young Russian did what he always does to hopes: He dashed them.

To date, he hasn’t won another tournament. By 2007, he was having trouble stringing two wins together. Some tennis pundits were suggesting that he retire, rather than further embarrass himself. At that year’s U.S. Open, he told reporters he was surprised people had anticipated so much.

He told them about life before his 2000 Open victory, when he had no money and no one thought he’d be a Grand Slam contender. Having won a pair of majors and made a good amount of money since then, he couldn’t see how he was failure. In other words, if there were others who’d expected more from him, well, that was their problem.

The name “Marat Safin” was last spoken in positive tones at the 2008 Wimbledon. At the event he’d once threatened to boycott, he upset a rising new star, and then reached the semis before losing to the Swiss Champion. However, coming in to 2009, the Russian, not so young anymore, was telling reporters that this would be his final year on tour. In doing so, he probably sought to make fans and oddsmakers expect less, which might have been his cue to start doing more.

At this year’ Australian Open, the Russian has punished his first two opponents. He hasn’t lost a set, or even had his serve broken. In the third round, he’ll face The Swiss Champion, who seeks to tie the record for Grand Slam titles. Few will dare to pick the Russian to win, as betting against the Swiss has been a dodgy proposition in the last five years. Even the Russian’s fans now realize that expecting him to win is the surest way to ensure disappointment.

Even so, the name “Marat Safin” is one that the Swiss probably didn’t want to see in his draw.

Some thought the Russian could be the Swiss Champion’s foil; some have said that his greatest enemy is himself. But there seems to be only one contest he cares about winning: In the rivalry between Marat Safin and Expectations, Expectations lose every time.