Tennis: As We Bid Adieu to Marat Safin (Pt Two)

Rob YorkSenior Writer IOctober 25, 2009

SHANGHAI, CHINA - OCTOBER 12:  Marat Safin of Russia returns a shot to Mao-Xin Gong of China during day two of 2009 Shanghai ATP Masters 1000 at the Qi Zhong Tennis Centre in Shanghai.  (Photo by Victor Fraile/Getty Images)

It's not every week that a two-time slam winner and major personality retires, so to mark the occasion of Marat Safin's departure, Long John Silver and I look back at his career. I cover his game, while Long looks at the non-stop show that was his personality.

A great all-court player, such as John McEnroe or Roger Federer , fills fans and even opponents with awe.

A great power baseliner can have the same effect, but once the jaw-dropping subsides, the self-aware nodding begins. Offensive-minded players who used their groundstrokes as their primary weapons are almost as old as the game itself, and the new generation of power baseliners always seems a logical progression in retrospect.

Now, when watching Jimmy Connors crush Ken Rosewall in the 1974 finals of both Wimbledon and the US Open, it’s hard to imagine a time when players didn’t use their returns of serve that aggressively.

Watching Ivan Lendl work his opponents’ legs over with his heavy shots—just as Jim Courier and Andre Agassi would in subsequent decades—it’s simply logical that the game’s hardest hitter, if he were also its fittest competitor, could win most matches just by wearing the other guy out.

Likewise, in the late-‘90s many of us watched the game’s tallest players, such as Goran Ivanisevic and Mark Philippoussis, and compared them to athletes of that height in the NBA and NFL. In that era, a 6’4” tennis player was generally considered a lumbering ace-monger who was lost without his serve.

However, at around the same time, 6’4” Daunte Culpepper was drafted into the NFL, and speed was said to be one of his greatest assets. Why, we wondered, couldn’t the same be true of a tennis player?

Marat Safin was tennis’ manifestation of this idea. Virtually the same height as Culpepper, his relaxed, fluid service motion regularly produced aces and 135 mph service winners. Unlike other players of his height, court coverage was no weakness for him, and he had much the same immaculate ball-striking ability that Agassi and Connors did.

In the late-‘90s, it seemed logical that he’d win majors one day.

But for him to do so in straight sets against Pete Sampras in the 2000 US Open was stunning: His ability to win free points with the serve had been seen before, but for him to hit return winners off of 120-mph deliveries and drill bull’s-eye passing shots while on the full stretch was unprecedented. It was like watching a field full of four-legged animals, then suddenly seeing one stand on its hind legs and flash a “thumbs up”; there was a sense that the game had forever changed, and that Safin was a species of his own.

Safin broke the game’s most dominant server four times that day—three times in a row at one stretch. If you’d asked most witnesses that evening whether Safin could beat most opponents just by showing up, my guess is most would’ve agreed.

But that isn’t possible in modern sports; if it were Safin surely would’ve been the player to pull it off. For most of the past decade, the big Russian not only showed up, but was sufficiently displeased with a number of losing efforts to shatter more Head rackets than most players will ever own.

But while Safin enjoyed winning matches and even—once in a while—big tournaments, he was made of a different fabric than the great baseliners listed above. Losses seemed to rankle Connors for months, if not years; Safin lost the 2002 Australian Open final to a lesser baseliner, then shrugged and cashed his runner’s up check.

Safin stayed fit throughout his career, but Lendl and Courier planned their entire years around tennis events, always making sure they were in the best shape to perform at the year’s big events. The Russian, however, showed up for an AO tune-up this year with two black eyes suffered in a hometown fist-fight.

Agassi, much like Safin, allowed stardom to distract from his prime tennis years, but had a late-20s revelation that culminated in one of tennis’ most amazing comebacks. Safin had his late-career moments, particularly in his run to the 2008 Wimbledon semis, but didn’t build upon them.

Now that all the majors of this decade have been played, Federer goes down as this era’s great all-courter. To the surprise of many who saw Safin crush Sampras nine years ago, he does not enter the history books as the great power-baseliner of this era; that honor goes to Rafael Nadal.

(Nadal, by the way, is also a logical extension of a past player, having taken all the fitness, tenacity, and clay-court comfort of Thomas Muster and putting it in the body of a much-superior athlete.

Like Muster, Nadal is great on clay and has won on other surfaces; it’s just that his greatness on clay is thus far equivalent to four times as many Roland Garros titles, and while Muster won a pair of non-clay Masters shields, Nadal has won a pair of non-clay slams.)

In an ever-evolving game, Safin had the potential to join the hard-hitting triumvirate of Connors-Lendl-Agassi. I still think someone 6’4” or greater will do that (a certain Argentinian shows promise) but it won’t be the big Russian. Safin announced at the start of this year that he was done at the end of 2009, and subsequent interviews indicate that his desire to leave has only grown in intensity.

His inconsistency maddened the lovers of his strokes, but for those who loved his antics and his personality (see Long John Silver’s piece for more on that), Safin never disappointed. Perhaps if he’d committed himself fully to tennis, Marat wouldn’t have really been Marat.

And thanks to the joy that is YouTube, Safin’s best tennis will never truly be lost to us. So, as his career comes to an end, we thank him for the memories he did provide, and wish him well with his next set of endeavors (whenever he decides what that is).