One of the regrets I will always have as a tennis fan and aficionado is that Marat Safin, one of the best ever to pick up a racket, didn't live up to his potential.
Safin and Roger Federer were contemporaries and were both brilliant in their trade. They were born a year apart and turned pro in 1997 and 1998, respectively. Purely on skills, they were more or less evenly matched. In fact, I would personally give the edge to Safin purely on game, as he could do anything with a tennis racket.
But alas, therein comes that little thing called temperament or also called mental state. That's where Federer gobbled him up. Their head-to-head series in favor of Federer by a 10-2 margin tells you a lopsided story.
I still remember Safin winning that never-to-be-forgotten semifinal at the Australian Open in 2005 that had some of the most breathtaking shots that you would ever watch on a tennis court. And the best part was that it was coming from either side with amazing regularity. For me, Safin went to those encounters with Federer, believing he could never win those matches.
More than just temperament, there wasn't the will either. I also didn't like that he used to idolize Federer, at least more than he needed to. Ironical that it was Safin who went on to win his first Grand Slam in the 2000 US Open when he demolished Pete Sampras in the final. However, subsequent to that, Safin never really did justice to his talent, except for that 2005 Australian Open, and ended up with just two Slams—a massive disappointment.
In some ways, I find Novak Djokovic similar in that regard.
Here is a player with exceptional talent, but who just lost self-belief in matches against Federer and Rafael Nadal. He could have won them with a bit more self-belief, but actually lost those even before they started. Therefore sometimes, you would think Federer won matches that he had no business winning.
It is amazing how a bit of self-belief has transformed this 24-year-old from Serbia into a winning machine.
I would rate Safin's serve, forehand and backhand all slightly better than Djokovic's, even the Djokovic of today. Safin probably had the best backhand in the history of the sport. Djokovic's backhand is not far off though and certainly the best in the game right now. On movement and return of serve, though, Djokovic rules.
It is up to Djokovic whether he wants to be remembered like Safin as a winner of two Slams and someone exceptionally talented but a has-been, or a true legend and someone who did justice to his talent. Something tells me he will end up being the latter.
The time to prove that is right here, right now. The year 2011 could be the year the "Djoker" comes of age.