I know I must be the nth person writing an article based on this topic today, but I simply had to. I had to say goodbye to one of my favourite tennis players—Marat Safin.
His loss to Jurgen Melzer yesterday marked the end of Marat's grand slam dreams. How ironic is the fact that he lost in the first round of the tournament which gave him his his first taste of tennis glory?
In my opinion if there was anybody out there who had the raw talent to give Roger Federer sleepless nights, it was Marat Safin. There was ample evidence to this claim when Marat started out—demolishing Pete Sampras to win the US Open nine years ago. The tennis world sat up, and aficionados were quick to crown him the successor to Pistol Pete. But all didn't go according to plan.
A lot of people would say “let’s not lose perspective here”—Marat did have a glittering career—two grand slams titles are a big deal. Besides that being the world number one, winning multiple ATP titles and leading his country to Davis Cup glory are extremely significant achievements in a tennis player’s life.
Every tennis player would like to taste the kind of success Marat basked in. Very true. And add to it the fact that he has always managed to be himself irrespective of the highs and lows of his tennis; Marat's career certainly seems enviable.
Yet the questions persist—what if he had realised his true potential? Could he have been in the tennis hall of fame, with the McEnroes and Bjorgs, with seven or 10 grand slam titles?
Maybe the old adage is true for people like Marat. Maybe the brighter they burn the quicker they burn out. Maybe he never had it in him to have a sustained, successful and conventional tennis career like Federer. Maybe he would have lost half of his charisma if he did.
If there was one thing which was predictable with Marat, it was his unpredictability. The kind of unpredictability which makes you wonder in awe when he hits a backhand to beat a top player one day, and the next day gets beaten by a player like me.
Can anyone imagine Marat without this aura of unpredictability? I can’t.
One thing became increasingly clear as his career unfolded—only Marat Safin could beat Marat Safin. The days he conquered his mental demons he freed himself up to play up some truly sensational tennis. Then again on the other days he would be in throes of desperation, a fallen hero without his powers, struggling to string a couple of points together.
Over the years Marat has entertained hordes of fans, who thronged in their thousands to see him; Marat the player, Marat the bona fide tennis star, Marat the act. Unfortunately or fortunately the lines between the many avatars of Marat Safin got blurred. He became part athlete, part entertainer.
Even though Marat didn’t necessarily like the honour bestowed upon him stating vehemently that “people should go to the circus if they want to see a clown,” everything Marat did grabbed headlines. Whether he was throwing rackets, shouting at the umpires or plainly cursing away in rapid Russian—people couldn’t have enough of the spitfire called Marat Safin.
I can think of very few athletes who have been so popular amongst both male and female fans. The men envied his playboy lifestyle and women his Adonis-blessed-perfectly-proportional good looks. But looks apart people liked Marat because they could relate to him. He was never squeaky clean.
His tears, his temper, his tantrums and everything in between made him and his tennis real. He was the guy who didn’t always win, but never failed to entertain. He was high on talent but low on self discipline. He was volatile, he was crude but he adored his fans. Ultimately he was the guy who had a heart full of passion but it burnt out all too quickly.
Whatever the reasons, I was (and am) a Marat Safin fan. I loved him on court and loved him off it. I adored his fearlessness. And his stupidity. I felt the pain when he fought with his psychological demons and cried when he was on the verge of tears. I was enraged when people called him a flash in the pan and wanted to hug him when he said he has had enough.
Like all his other fans I was hoping for a last hurray from Marat before he hung up his racket, but I guess it was not meant to be.
Yesterday he might have bid adieu to grand slam tennis but it will take his fans a while to say goodbye to him. Characters like Marat Safin are rare in today’s politically correct world of men’s tennis—and if there is one thing I m sure of it is this—we won’t be seeing someone like him in a long time.