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Slacker Agonistes 10/23/2007 - 9:00 PM

Ahoy, friends. Asad Raza here. I'm back with some thoughts on last week in tennis - more specifically, on tennis' beloved, infuriating slackers, David Nalbandian and Marat Safin. The two players' fortunes diverged wildly over the last few days, with Nalbandian as we all know pulling off the rare 1-2-3 by defeating Nadal, Djokovic and Federer to win his first Master's Series shield in Madrid. (Just that fact alone, that it was his first MS victory, is a shock - even when they win these guys remind you how much more they should win.) Safin, meanwhile, declared his season over after a first-round loss to a bigger lug, Lil' Ivo Karlovic, in the selfsame Madrid event. This means he will miss the Davis Cup final - more on that below.

SafinMentioning Safin's potential always gets people mentioning that 2000 U.S. Open final as proof of his abilities, which, to be honest, I think is pretty silly. It was only one match. Still it gives rise to the following tempting and glorious thought: what if there was a player so big, so strong, and so good that he could whip anyone in straight sets, make any player, even Pete Sampras, look overmatched? And wouldn't it be something if that player had a tragic temperamental flaw that prevented him from dominating? The reason it's an attractive myth is that it partakes of what was known to the Romantic poets as the sublime: i.e. the sense that there are mountains that dwarf the Himalayas, giants walking the earth, players with abilities far beyond the level of the tennis we see.

Safin has a poetic way of fitting into this line of thinking: he's a big boy, he has heroic good looks, and he's capable of breathtakingly hard hitting. (I saw him hit a ball out of the Grandstand in anger two months ago; it's hard to describe--I have never seen a ball struck like that.) But the idea that he should be capable of destroying the field is simply wrong. It's true that he can play scintillating baseline tennis, when matched against a player who stubbornly lets him stay in rhythm. You see this with top players: Agassi in Melbourne in 2004, Federer in 2005. They won't demean themselves by giving him no pace, mixing things up, and they fall victim to the devastating metronome of Safin's crosscourt groundstrokes.

But it's also true that humble bamboozlers like Fabrice (The Great) Santoro or Oli Rochus, can bamboozle Marat by taking pace off the ball and playing patiently. The strategy works because it exploits his single greatest problem: his tendency to "go away" during matches. This is a weakness as real and as consequential as Elena Dementieva's serve. Sure, the Captain's many admirers love to fantastize about taming him and helping him settle down, but the point is that Federer or Nadal fans need entertain no such fantasies. Those guys already have the capacity for long periods of focus, extreme workout routines, and sustained concentration. Marat, meanwhile, has always suffered inconceivable losses and sudden breakdowns of form. And since coming back from a bad knee injury in 2005, his mobility and especially his agility have suffered, giving him less margin for error and exacerbating his problems.

I think it's pretty obvious Safin is having a crisis of confidence right now, and probably considering retirement. His abortive mountain-climbing mission was a sign that he's looking for ways to contemplate what he should be doing with himself. His announcement that will not play in the Davis Cup final, however, is much more serious--he's not even leaving the decision about his level of play up to his brilliant coach, Shamil Tarpischev. It's quite sad, coming from Safin, a player who has been a stalwart for his country. Marat Safin seems not only to represent his country but to personify it, to symbolize contemporary Russia in some prodigious way. (An aside here: for a hilariously sharp take on Russia, America, and the farce that is current geopolitics, please read Gary Shteyngart's satirical novel, Absurdistan.)

Like Safin, Nalbandian is a Davis Cup symbol for his country, and plays his best tennis in that setting. Outside of Davis Cup, Nalbandian has this signal characteristic: just when we think his days as a guy who can beat Roger Federer are over for good, he comes back and does it again. He's like the comeback specialist who specializes not in rising through the rankings, or winning Slams out of nowhere, but coming out of nowhere to beat Fed. A pretty cool ability to have, but Nalbandian has little in the way of prizes: just six career titles, to be exact. He also has a slew of big-match collapses, such as giving up two-set leads against Baghdatis in Australia and Roddick in Flushing Meadows. Madrid was the first final he reached in 2007, while in 2006 he won Estoril but failed to reach another final.

NalbyNalbandian did his reputation for underachievement no favors by losing quickly at Wimbledon in 2006 after requesting, and not getting, a time change so he could watch Argentina play in the World Cup. But there may be a meaning in that story hasn't been remarked on. First off, it's obvious that Nalbandian cares pretty strongly about his nation--and we Americans must try to understand the importance of the World Cup for the traditional footballing nations. There is a deep-rooted pride involved, one that that combines the civic love that, say, Bill Simmons has for the Boston Red Sox with all the patriotism that attaches to a shared culture and language.

Trust me for a minute here. I am not trying to excuse Daveed for the Wimbledon debacle. But if you put that together with his Davis Cup heroics, I think you have something: both point to a man who finds it easier, and more natural, to motivate himself by attaching his sympathies to something beyond his own self-interest. A nation, a team, and especially a national team, can electrify certain people who have trouble staying engaged when only playing for themselves. Remember how John McEnroe, the greatest Davis Cup player in U.S. tennis history, used to complain about the solipsism of singles tennis and point out the collaborative joy he felt in team play?

Nalbandian and Safin play well for their countries, and oscillate wildly in individual competition. The downside of this is that to see such talented players struggle with motivation can leach some of the joy out of watching tennis. It makes you wonder, do they even care about tennis? And the answer may well be: not as much, and not in as single minded a way, as Mr. Federer. But I think they both deserve some sympathy too: I'm not sure Marat actually has the physical ability to challenge the best anymore, and Nalbandian is hardly the only guy who goes all Haas-like under pressure. Safin and Nalbandian bring gorgeous, fluid ability to the game--that's a pair of the most beautiful two-handers you'll ever see. Both struggle with consistency (hey! I can identify!), which makes watching them an unpredictable drama, but they typically find a way to get it together when playing for something bigger than themselves. To me, that's worth appreciation.

A final note: their head-to-head is 6-3 in favor of Safin, the more accomplished player, but Nalbandian won the last two meetings, in the Madrid 2006 QF and then last year in the Davis Cup final in Russia, where Argentina's standard bearer took out Russia's, 4, 4, and 4.

-Asad Raza

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Posted by zolarafa (formerly just zola) 10/23/2007 at 11:42 PM

first??? really?

Posted by fastbowler 10/23/2007 at 11:44 PM

"It makes you wonder, do they even care about tennis? "

Very Carrie Bradshaw, Asad! :)

Otherwise, another fascinating piece of writing. Definitely more insight than Carrie was ever capable of.

Posted by randomtester 10/23/2007 at 11:45 PM

whoa...for the first time...FIRST!!!

Posted by randomtester 10/23/2007 at 11:46 PM

awww, I shoulda posted before I read the article. T_T

Posted by zolarafa (formerly just zola) 10/23/2007 at 11:53 PM

Asad, I read a lot about Safin these days. The last one by James MArtin infuriated him and his team, but I think he should know that people write about him because they like him. They want Safin to be around much more.People are concerned about him.
I wrote this isomewhere else and copy it here:

Safin has a mental breakdown. he needs something to boost his confidence. He has the game but is too lazy to practice or gat matches. Reminds me a bit of phillipousis ( although Marat is a much better player). He has so many distractions that can’t focus on his game.

He should take Agassi as a model. In fact maybe he should go to Las Vegas , live with him for a while. He has to learn how to focus again, train hard and come back after a year off ans work his way up in the rankings.

I don’t want him to give up tennis.

Posted by fernando 10/24/2007 at 12:03 AM

"Both struggle with consistency (hey! I can identify!"

That's exactly the point why I love'em so much. And why I loved Mecir in the past. Unlike Federer, who is just a GENIUS, they're like HUMAN geniuses. They both like beautiful girls, play (sometimes only) on inspiration and no fitness at all, eat with their mouths wide open and stuff.
Hey, I'll always prefer THE SIMPSONS over, say, THE COSBY SHOW.

Now you can call me a martyr. I surely deserve it!!!!

Posted by fernando 10/24/2007 at 12:09 AM

"He's like the comeback specialist who specializes not in rising through the rankings, or winning Slams out of nowhere"

Well, the jury is still out for either one of these.

Posted by abbey 10/24/2007 at 12:24 AM

how fitting is it, that their last match against each other, is in davis cup?

Posted by abbey 10/24/2007 at 12:39 AM

i remember i kept reading throughout the year how marat is just going through the motions, that surely, he'll retire by the end of the year, that he's lacking motivation, etc. but then i read his pressers where the journalists ask him these same questions and his answers were completely the opposite. in fact, he just hired a new coach. so i think i'll just take marat's words, and believe that it's more of a confidence issue than a motivation issue.

nalby is more of an enigma for me.

since i'm done with the russian debutante's handbook, maybe i'll grab absurdistan. is it better?

Posted by dm30 10/24/2007 at 12:48 AM

Very, very rich, Ray. Nice.

The third paragraph and the first two sentences of the fourth made me think quite hard about something. How have these contrasting player-types factored into Safin's best Slam results? Well, let's see:

2000 US Open
Safin defeats Guardiola, Pozzi, Grosjean, Ferrero, Kiefer, Martin, and Sampras

2002 Australian Open
Safin defeats Dupuis, Christophe Rochus, Youzhny, Sampras, Ferreira, Haas, and loses to Thomas Johansson

2004 Australian Open
Safin defeats Vahaly, Nieminen, Martin, Blake, Roddick, Agassi, and loses to Federer

2005 Australian Open
Safin defeats Djokovic, Ulihrach, Ancic, Olivier Rochus(!), Hrbaty, Federer, and Hewitt

Interesting, huh? He was faced with lots of matches against those players who would feed into Safin's rhythm, such as Ferrero, Kiefer, Martin (twice), Sampras (twice), Youzhny, Ferreira, Nieminen, Blake, Roddick, Agassi, Federer, Hewitt, Ancic, and even Djoko. Ferreira, though, retired while trailing 5-2 in the first set. And we know about the five-set monster with Fed in '05. But the Roddick, Agassi, and Martin AO matches also went five sets, though not as tightly as the Fed match. But then he goes and loses to ThoJo, who I'd think would be the same type of rhythm-feeding player! That's our Marat ;)

But look at this: Safin also had to beat a few guys whose games can give him a hard time. Haas (another five-set match) has certainly given Fed fits, and is more than capable of frustrating Safin. And I guess Fed himself can sort of do different things in his matches sometimes ;) and Marat would have to contend with that. Grosjean is interesting to me because while I can't exactly recall his game, I know he did quite well on both clay and grass, so with a style for succeeding on both those surfaces, he could trouble Marat. And booyah, Safin took down Oli here. But hello, look at the score: 4-6, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6. Hmmm ... anyone remember the Stich-Edberg Wimbledon semi? And does anyone know if Rochus lost this match without once losing serve?

Overall it looks like Safin has blasted some wicked draws at his best Slams.
Though his typical opponent has been, as Ray said, a rhythm-feeder. His best match-up.

As for Daveed? Eeesh. I can't think about that until I sleep and let my brain process the rest of the post.


Posted by Tony 10/24/2007 at 01:04 AM

Asad made good points about Safin. But Safin’s potential was apparent in more than just that one match against Sampras at the US Open. I first saw Safin live at a Master’s tournament in 2000 (a few weeks before his US Open win) which he won and also beat Pete Sampras for the first time. I was enthralled by his fluid playing, easy power, movement for a big guy and sound of his hitting. He was certainly the surprise star of the event – not Agassi, Sampras, Kuerten, Philippoussis or Rafter – and it sure seemed at the time that a very special player had arrived, one that would be dominating tennis and we could easily like.

Last year Nalbandian admitted, “tennis is a profession, not an obsession.” His real obsession is car racing. He owns a racing team in Argentina and a few weeks ago took part in a race there as a driver. The talented Nalbandian has, at times, just not been obsessed and committed to tennis the way, say, a Nadal is willing to push his body beyond its physical limits... or even a Federer.

Posted by Samantha 10/24/2007 at 06:15 AM

Ray, great post. I would agree that I think Safin's days of challenging the best are over with, and I'm sorry to say that he's very hard to feel sorry for. There are so many people who would die for his talent but he prefered to be a playboy and to waste such a special gift. I feel sorry for the people who labor in the ITF circuit like my countrywoman Sofia Arvidsson, and work real hard, but are never given the talent that Safin was given. He could have been great but he CHOSE not to, now he's just a shell of his former self and we are suppose to have a pity party for poor Marat. I'm not joining it because I see so many players who work twice as hard as Safin, and they care about the sport. To me, he's a loser because he made the decision to not even try. It's not as if he didn't have the talent, but he made the conscious decision to waste it. How sad. Go Justine, world #1!

Posted by Samantha 10/24/2007 at 06:17 AM

Great title Ray because slacker fits Marat perfectly.

Posted by shariq 10/24/2007 at 07:51 AM

Nice article. About the Nalbandian wimbledon incident, one thing which annoys me is the constant 'we need more characters in the game' comment. It doesn't help when a proud Argentinian who is a davis cup warrior is criticised for being unprofessional when he wants to support the national football team. Professionalism and 'characters' don't always go together although having said that Federer is a great character even though he is the consummate pro.

Another comment. I know Nalbandian has been working with a new coach, but maybe the success of the Rugby team in the world cup also gave him some fresh confidence and self-belief. You never know what it is which causes sportsmen to turn the corner.

Posted by baxter 10/24/2007 at 07:54 AM

re: dm30's question. oli rochus was broken once during the australian open match and safin was broken twice. interestingly safin's h2h with rochus is 6-3 in safin's favour. certainly better than against santoro, that other nemesis of his.

Posted by skip1515 10/24/2007 at 08:24 AM

Tragic flaw, indeed. The tennis landscape is littered with players who dramatically demonstrate how much mental strength means in the course of becoming a champion.

Of course, they demonstrate that by their *lack* of mental strength, not their abundance of it. They're the players we watch, wondering why they can't string points together, or win either regularly or that one, tough match. Occasionally they'll have a spurt of focus and tease with results, but more often than not it's an aberration, and they eventually fall victim again to their inability to put it all together. Malisse comes to mind, but he's not the only one, and might not even be the best example.

Or, perhaps more specifically, they're the players we rarely see, since anyone on tennis' main stage has shown at least a modest amount of mental strength; otherwise they wouldn't have made the bigs.

Although there are those who do show herculean resolve, they're not as many, and their displays of great resolve are not as obvious. Santoro and Rochus show us how valuable it is, but without the physical talents of Safin they've never scaled the heights.

To believe that Safin consciously chose not to fully exploit his talent is to believe, wrongly, that great artists make art because they want to; there are neural pathways and deep-in-the-genes predilictions that cannot be changed. I'm not equating Safin with Picasso, but the Spanish master painted because he had to, and Safin couldn't have been like Nadal no matter how much he might have tried.

That US Open final against Sampras was a glimpse of how tennis might be played if Zeus picked up a racquet and showed us both its power and nuances.

It's no wonder Safin couldn't play like that all the time. No one can.

Posted by Ray Stonada 10/24/2007 at 08:33 AM

Agreed, Skip. That last bit especially: Safin couldn't have the mental strength of Nadal no matter how hard he tried. It's not in him. Perhaps I shouldn't have used the word "slacker" in the title, which gives the wrong implication - but its similarity to "Samson" in an article partly about tennis' Samson was too much.

Tony, thanks for the info about Nalbie's racing team. Not surprised his true passion lies eleswhere - and in a collaborative effort.

Posted by linex 10/24/2007 at 09:15 AM

"and Nalbandian is hardly the only guy who goes all Haas-like under pressure".

I did not understand that meaning of that phrase. I know that Haas is famous for collapsing. Nalbandian is more famous for collapsing when he has a lead in a match but not when coming from a one or more sets and games deficit.

Posted by Rani 10/24/2007 at 09:25 AM

What a lovely, controlled piece of writing!

Posted by skip1515 10/24/2007 at 09:32 AM

"Safin Agonistes", Ray? That would leave out Nalbandian, but give even more of a nod to Milton.

Nicely done, by the way.

Posted by skip1515 10/24/2007 at 09:34 AM

Ooooo, and Safin's seemingly tugging on his eyes in the photo didn't even register until now.

"Eyeless in Roland Garros?..."

Posted by Aabye 10/24/2007 at 09:47 AM

Really great article Mr. Raza. A tribute two of my favorite slackers. And although I won't hold my breath, I would like to see Safin, at least once more, prove false that line about him "not being physically able to challenge the best anymore". It is probably a true statement, but I was one of those counting Daveed out before this tournament.

Posted by shariq 10/24/2007 at 09:51 AM

A quick thought on Safin echoing what Skip said. There are probably a number of Safin like characters who never even made it to the pro ranks because they were slackers i.e they didn't want to put in the hard yards when they were younger.

You have to give props to Marat that he went to Spain, worked incredibly hard to hone his talent and made a successful career as a tennis pro. Like Kafelnikov, he might not have the 'desire for greatness' gene, but like his fellow Russian he has definitely been a successful tennis player.

Posted by Ray Stonada 10/24/2007 at 09:52 AM

True, Skip, "Safin Agonistes" would have been nice. The thing with Safin is that if you look at his results since his knee injury, you realize he hasn't played top 20 tennis since, no question about it. So the idea that a guy who had the years he did in 2000, 2002, 2004, and early 2005 is simply not trying hard enough anymore doesn't cut it with me. I think the knee combined with his inability to stay focussed have made it impossible for him to play top-tier tennis now.

By the way, Abbey, I haven't read Russian Debutante's Handbook, but I really thought Absurdistan was hilarious and on point. Check it out!

Posted by gvgirl 10/24/2007 at 09:52 AM

Watch out for Argentina in Davis Cup 2008! It looks like they could have home field advantage throughout the year which is huge in Davis Cup!

Posted by Pierre Des Joachims 10/24/2007 at 10:24 AM

I think this article, in relation to Nalbandian, would have made more sense a week ago, but then it would have been proven wrong by his win. I am not saying he is going to have the same success in the future, you can't say that about any of the players he faced either. But to lump him in as a slacker at this moment seems to me to be very poor timing, it is like you have comprehensively failed to appreciate what he did over the last week.

If you want to compare the two right now, I would say Safin's theme song could be "If I only had a brain..."

While Nalbandian is like the lion who wished "If I only had the noive..." but who found it inside himself.

One other observation, Tony, your paragraph that starts:

"Last year Nalbandian admitted, “tennis is a profession, not an obsession.” His real obsession is car racing. He owns a racing team in Argentina and a few weeks ago took part in a race there as a driver. "

is strikingly similar to one written by Tom Tebbutt in the Globe and Mail:

"Last year he declared, “tennis is a profession, not an obsession.” His real obsession being car racing. He owns a team in Argentina and took part in a race as a driver there a few weeks ago."

Posted by Ray Stonada 10/24/2007 at 10:30 AM

Good points Pierre - but as of now, for all his talents, Nalbandian's career isn't a patch on Safin's. I do appreciate his achievement last week, but to me it just points to his lack of achievement in careeer terms. Not that I blame him for it, exactly - much of the time he is simply unable to produce his best stuff at the right time.

I love the Wizard of Oz metaphor though...

Posted by ptenisnet 10/24/2007 at 11:03 AM

I dont think it is a courage thing with nalby.
He either cares or doesn't.
I would love to know why/when he cares or doesn't.

Posted by Tokyo Tom (tt) 10/24/2007 at 01:19 PM

With tennis, I think it is very difficult to play contrary to one's personality and natural inclination. Some people are patient and steady and others impatient and actually like to go for the "right" shot rather than the high percentage. There are a wide range of possibilities. With our own games we know we either love a long rally or can't resist pulling the trigger early in the point. The longer the rally goes on does a player feel like they are more or less likely to win the point.

A combination of physical gifts, training and natural instincts, I think, play a major role in how these guys approach a match and the game. It is what is part of what makes sports interesting.

Posted by marieJ 10/24/2007 at 01:32 PM

tks asad for writing of my sweet maratski ;) and nalby of course !

marat is so unpredictible at times that you never know what's next with him... and call me masochista but i like it !

he has little left in the tank and want to enjoy life more than winning... it's sad for his fans who would love seeing him winning a last couple of tittles, but even TMF can't fullfill his fans' dreams of gran slam.... i don't think that any player can give more than he actually has... waiting for a miracle from marat is allways possible, but it's like kids believing is santa claus... in our wildest dreams it can be true, but in the real world ?

i hope he keeps his word when he'll choose to retire he'll do it in bercy, i would love to see him there for his last match...

if nalby was tennis obsessed maybe fed would not have all the tittles he has... and maybe nadal too who missed him during 2 entire seasons...
i would love that 2008 will be the year of nalbandian !

go david !

Posted by Todd and in Charge 10/24/2007 at 01:49 PM

Nice essay, Ray. I am a softie for the misfits from Broken Toyland, so I always root for dismissed, disrespected talents who can only turn it on in sporadic fits and starts. To me perfection is beautiful, but sometimes boring. Give me an overweight, over-tanned, sun god Nalby, trying to find his form, and I'm fascinated watching the struggle.

But I watched all of the last three Nalby matches in Madrid, and I know the ardent fans of those he beat have strong feelings, which I respect and acknowledge. But there was something impressive and awesome about a man of lesser talents, who lacks the consistency and physical and mental skill of those he was playing, step up and play at such a worldbeater level.

And I agree on Davis Cup. It's funny to see guys who really step it up for their country, like Luby, Nalby, Haas, or Safin, derided for their lackluster individual Grand Slam performances from people who otherwise believe that patriotism is a supreme virtue.

Posted by lbk77 10/24/2007 at 01:52 PM

Excellent article and you are spot on! Could not agree more with you. Just to prove that the hype surrounding Nalbandian's defeat of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic does not transform him overnight into the next great thing in men's tennis, he loses his very first match after Madrid in Basel to Stan Wawrinka in straight sets. What has kept Nalbandian from being a part of the tennis elite is the lack of consistency. It is one thing to be able to play one great tournament or even 2 or 3 great tournaments. What really distinguishes the special players from good players is the ability to come up with great perfomances week-in and week-out and not relax after one great result. This is precisely what Nalbandian has done. If you lack the physical and mental power to play tennis even for a decent stretch of time, you can never consistently stay on top. This is true of Safin and Nalbandian. It is a bigger problem for Nalbandian because he has to work very hard in his matches and does not have a big serve like Safin and is basically at the mercy of his opponent. There is no secret as to why he has had success only sporadically and that too only when his opponents are tired/exhausted/injured.

Posted by The Greatest 10/24/2007 at 02:58 PM


Posted by jon 10/24/2007 at 03:00 PM

Who cares that Safin isn't playing Davis Cup!!?? D.C is the biggest joke in tennis, it means NOTHING because for some reason they think it's a brilliant idea to hold it EVERY YEAR. Nobody wants to play 'for their country' (barf) anymore because it's lost all meaning

Posted by 10/24/2007 at 03:02 PM

"what if there was a player so big, so strong, and so good that he could whip anyone in straight sets, make any player, even Pete Sampras, look overmatched?" Well, it looked like there was one a few years ago. Philipoussis thrashed Sampras (in his prime) in the first set at Wimbledon, early on in the tournament - and then the silly bugger had to go and get injured and retire. Naturally Sampras went on to win the title. We'll never know, but certainly Philipoussis had it in him to go on and overwhelm Sampras, unlike any other of the more favoured candidates in the field. And as Zolarafa has pointed out, there are some interesting similarities between the Australian and Russian giants.

One of the more unfortunate ones is a proneness to recurring injury.(Greg "the teeth" Rusedski reckons Safin hasn't properly recovered from his knee injury, and probably won't). This is one of those bleak facts of nature about which nothing can be done, but in the light of which, Samantha's sententious little contribution is an even more unwelcome piece of sanctimonious priggery. I thought Skip1515's comments interesting and perceptive. It's controversial, but personally I agree that the role of choice in these matters is pretty limited. There can be no doubt but that Safin has struggled with his particular demons, and we should honour him for this, regardless of his marked lack of success. Judge not lest...remember how it goes?

Tony, very interesting on Nalbandian. Racing car driver, eh? I remember when I first saw him, he had a hint of a moustache, and looked oddly like a British second world war pilot (piquant, given Nalbandian's apparent anti-Britishness) - old fashioned and rather dashing. And now he is a portly gent who likes to go fishing. Isn't it strange that two such utterly different characters as Safin and Nalbandian should have such similar games when they're on. That gorgeous, smooth stroking of the ball into the corners that you feel could go on for ever and ever, on a cool Summer afternoon.........

Posted by grendel 10/24/2007 at 03:03 PM

sorry, that was me at 3:02 pm

Posted by jon 10/24/2007 at 03:04 PM

and shut up with that "do they even care about tennis?" crap. You can ask that question once you have to play 48 weeks a year. Of course he cares about tennis! Safin made a career playing it while you sit and write about him!

Posted by Samantha 10/24/2007 at 04:25 PM

Here's a player that would rather climb a mountain then play for his own country. That's dedication to the sport. He's losing to players that he should easily beat. He doesn't act like he cares, so why shouldn't people wonder. It's not the media's or the fault of writers that Safin threw his career away. What about personal responsibility for wasting your talent? Isn't that what you adults keeping telling us, be responsible for your actions? Safin and nobody else is responsible for the failure of his career. Go Justine, World's #1!

Posted by Snoo Foo 10/24/2007 at 05:32 PM

"Here's a player that would rather climb a mountain then play for his own country."

what a traitor, he's only played 47 rubbers in 20 ties and his country only has 4 players ranked higher than him, it's really disgusting.

Posted by Bismarck 10/24/2007 at 05:34 PM

very much agree, grendel at 3.02
especially re the judgement.
let´s transplant safin´s injuries (wrist, knee!) into certain other players´ careers and see how much they win with these obstacles...

Posted by Tony 10/24/2007 at 06:01 PM

David Nalbandian the racing star (see link). As Asad/Ray said, car racing is a collaborative team effort.

No wonder Nalbandian has a hard time waking up for anyone on the ATP tour not named Federer, Nadal or Djokovic. Like Stan Wawrinka. Once Nalbandian wins the World Rally Championships and disposes of Sebastien Loeb, will he move on to F1 racing?

Pierre Des Joachims: Thanks for pointing it out because that’s where I got it from (see link). I usually post links but was distracted by the Barcelona game.

Pierre, second, there’s nothing wrong with the timing of Asad/Ray’s article in the context of Nalbandian’s win last week. It wasn’t trying to explain sporadic successes like Madrid, but the big picture of his failure to be more successful at such events through much of his career. As well, nothing in the article failed to appreciate his success at the Madrid Masters. In fact, it would suggest that Nalbandian’s win in an individual competition should be seen as more special, as he achieved it while playing for himself. It also sets up an explanation of what happened. Gifted players like Nalbandian (and Safin at AO) occasionally are able to motivate themselves for a short while, get hot and catch the zone for a few games. For whatever reason, the stars align for a few days. As well, there was less pressure on Nalbandian to win – unlike the pressure on Federer, Nadal and Djokovic – so he had nothing to lose by going for his shots (e.g., as he started early in the second set against Roger). Had Nalbandian lost to any of those players, few people would have talked about his loss.

Grendel: The second time I saw Safin play live, his box had more pretty girls than coaching/support staff, so while Nalbandian’s ‘true passion’ may lie on race tracks elsewhere, it seemed to me that Safin brings his ‘true passions’ with him on court (unlikely to be siblings since none of them resembled Marat or Dinara). But you’re right about the beauty of their games, which is almost ironic isn’t it? It would be the best advertisement if only the ATP had the brains to capture their sporadic brilliance and, together with fantastic points of other players, show the world what tennis players can do. How often have you seen humdrum points on the highlight reels and wondered whether the general public thinks tennis sometimes looks boring.

Posted by Samantha 10/24/2007 at 06:09 PM

I hope it doesn't seem like I'm judging Safin, because I don't mean to. I remember seeing his great run at the AO and I thought he was so gifted and talented, and to see someone not use it or to be a slacker. Well, it's really sad. Good luck to him, no matter what he choses to do. I just have a feeling it might be too late, and like Hingis, the game may have passed him by. Go Justine, World's #1!

Posted by grendel 10/24/2007 at 07:00 PM

This business of Safin rather climbing a mountain than play for his country. As Snoo Foo has pointed out, Safin's record is exemplary. Someone, can't remember who, pointed out that Safin, just like McEnroe, found a sort of relief in submerging his individuality in the team. He could express himself with far more ease when doing so in collaboration with others. I haven't actually heard his reason for declining to play in the Davis Cup final, but I'd bet my life it's because he genuinely doesn't think he's good enough as of now. I bet he thinks Russia has a better chance of winning without him - and he may be right, sadly. I wonder he doesn't consider teaming up with Tursonov in the doubles, though. They had some good success recently, and it would take pressure of the main players.

Posted by Aabye 10/24/2007 at 08:05 PM

Hey, Tony, I think the ATP has done a great job of marketing these guys. I mean, neither one has been in the mix for awhile yet we still see their faces in the MS commercials, ATP site, etc., much more than some higher players such as Davydenko and Ljubicic.

But I too think it is sad that Safin won't play DC. Although there are higher ranked, better prepared players, we all know that means little in team play. Davydenko has not lived up to his ranking really as of yet, and the rest might not be used to the pressure that comes with facing the US on their own soil.

Posted by Ryan 10/24/2007 at 11:13 PM

Hey Ray, great post.

You know, sometimes when I play tennis, and we all have this, there are days when I just can't miss. Everything drops in, I mishit nothing, I'm moving better than usual. Next match, I drop 2 and 2. Is it possible that these players, blessed with ridiculous talent, are the same way? That they are simply unable to come up with their best all the time? I don't think it always has to be a matter of caring about the game. Maybe they just can't do it.

On the other hand, it could be a case of them not living up to their potential, like the bratty slacker in high school. I just get a feeling it's the former. When you know you can be as good as those two, why would you ever want to lose or not play your best?

Posted by Dee 10/24/2007 at 11:29 PM

"(Just that fact alone, that it was his first MS victory, is a shock - even when they win these guys remind you how much more they should win.) "

How true.

Posted by jb (now waiting for monday) 10/25/2007 at 12:25 AM

ER - I believe that Safin originally went up the mountain because he'd injured his wrist. Since he was unable to play, its not a matter of him chosing the mountain over his country, but taking an opportunity presented by his inability to play.

His wrist is still bothering him, according to his site; and its contributed to his calling it quits for the year.

Posted by svelterogue 10/25/2007 at 04:29 AM

amazing article, ray stonada! one of my lucky days. i've been "involved" in news concerning team sports such as football and formula one racing. one can argue that in football, teams are put together to represent nations, such as what we're seeing right now in the euro 2008 and world cup 2010 qualifiers. in connection to what you said about nalby's seemingly odd request to have his match moved in wimby 2006 so he could watch riquelme, messi et al in the quarterfinals, let me tell you that when i found out about his request, i did not find it off-putting and in fact, i smiled about it at the time. it's a pity he lost and his team too, hours later, but i can understand the notion of finding the motivation to play much better when you play for something "greater" than your own glory. the late ayrton senna, 3-time world champion in formula one, was known for his fierce patriotism, this in spite of motorsport being a decidedly individual sport (pilots do not primarily drive for their countries although their countrymen will be rabidly cheering them on), and when he was killed in 1994, brazil's then president declared 3 days of mourning, something that is reserved for national heroes.

i would not be surprised if nalby and marat are seen not only as icons of tennis in their native argentina and russia, respectively, but also as symbols of national honour and pride. i'm not even russian or argentinian but i love these two players with such gusto it breaks my heart each time they lose. what more if i WERE russian (moreso a muscovite!) or argentinian... my heart would beat with their every victory and suffer with their every loss.

Posted by svelterogue 10/25/2007 at 04:58 AM

my previous comment bears more explanation (i reread it and confounded myself in the process heeeee!) re: team spirit.

i said that formula one racing and football are team sports in that both sports require teams in place to make a bid for victory. i quote ayrton senna once more, in a famous round table interview he had after he had won a grand prix in detroit in the mid 80s, when asked if he won races because of his sheer talent. he retorted, "i win because the team spirit is great!" hence my use of him as a fine example of someone who, although part of a team, can be sorely tempted to claim sole glory in victory. of late, british and spanish media can be blamed for overtly jingoistic reports on "britain's lewis hamilton" and "spain's fernando alonso". you can see that neither driver is at mclaren to represent their country but to represent their team, mclaren-mercedes.

i don't know if i made my case worse with this :) but i hope you somehow grasped my struggling point. hehhhh.

Posted by The Original French(ie) 10/25/2007 at 05:31 AM

I'm a bit disappointed by this disingenuous (& pretentious I might add) piece of writing. I think it's basically unfair to Safin who is currently having a hard time professionally. I also thought that -because of the title- it would somehow balance James Martin's take (you know, agonistes/heroes-antiheroes-battles etc..) but it just ended as a useless and self-important exercise in shooting down someone who's already on the ground. Very courageous indeed.

So,anyway, it seems that now that Safin is down people are making him "pay" for his wild & idiosyncratic ways of life . As if an athlete had to "suffer" (or look like he/she is suffering) or "look serious" to succeed and for people to absolve him/her when the problems and challenges are piling up. The blond "bosomed-ladies" in Marat's box, the parties, the sponsors dollars,Monte Carlo, the cars, all WHILST winning slams, going into finals, winning titles here and there, are the "real" reasons Marat is today being chastised (or asked to retire).

Also I'm not sure what sporting/journalistic credentials (of any kind) people who make definitive comments on Safin's ability to "destroy the field" can present at this moment. Why the sudden diminished quality of Safin as a GS winner because of his "baseline game" (2 times champion and several GS finals)? I mean, if I understand correctly, does it really count if he can be beaten by Fabrice Santoro? (o hoorror, is "baseliner" the new "clay-court specialist" moniker) Nice. Enter the ATP top 1000 and then, perhaps, some of these claims might be warranted and taken seriously.

I also find the condescension towards the "people" who take moments to analyze and compare Safin's tennis to Sampras and their hopes (OK, delusions) that someone -just like Federer is currently doing- might dethrone him (and that this person could be Safin with his mega good looks and character) very much problematic. As if it were a contemptuous thing to actually root for the Russian (however Federer and Nadal "fans" are quickly absolved I note....).

Lastly, (APOLOGIES for the long post) I see a lot of similarity between the comments I read and hear about Safin and what is happening to Maria Sharapova. People either do not believe that they are doing the maximum to get better or just underline how they're now finished and should go to away "to rest" with their millions etc...And I won't even start with them being both Russians and that more often than not (in this site and elsewhere), Russian players -from these 2, to Davydenko and Kournikova- always end up as easy punchlines and punching balls....Talk about geopolitics.

To finish, I'll just mention what the very American Andy Roddick (someone who also got, ahem, a lot of maligned flak about his career) said about journos (and others) who could not lift their own laptop for their own good (I paraphrase) but were mercilessly commenting on his sporting achievements. Marat said more or less the same things on his web site (albeit in more "enchanting" words) and I agree. I hope he gets better, takes care of his knee and wrist and starts winning in 2008. And who knows he might even play DC in November!! Perhaps one should not underestimate Tarpishev.

Posted by The Original French(ie) 10/25/2007 at 05:33 AM

again, I'm really sorry for the long post.

For Nalbandian I suggest reading Kamakshi's and Perrotta's articles. They're far from being positive but at least they are legitimate and achieve objectivity. (nalbo lost to wawrinka in the first round in basel!!!!!)

Posted by The Original French(ie) 10/25/2007 at 05:54 AM

ahhhhhh, irony, RODDICK was defeated by ¤Fabulous Fabrice¤ in Lyon! The mighty-tiny French can take Roddick AND Safin, what a guy !!!! It's also good that ¤fab¤ said he will not retire in 2008 (and might even continue in 2009.) I want to see a Santoro-Safin match next year at the AO.

Posted by The Original French(ie) 10/25/2007 at 09:08 AM

"as if it were a contemptuous thing to actually root for the Russian (however Federer and Nadal "fans" are quickly absolved I note....)."

I meant *contemptible* (and not contemptuous).


Posted by rudi 10/25/2007 at 11:49 AM

Roddick loses to Santoro and he is 'outfoxed', Blake is 'downsized' by Ivo. But Safin is 'brainless', (a term commonly repeated by bloggers, armchair players and analysts such as Jensen, Washington and Collins) when he loses to those same guys.
We set arbitrary goals for his career while condemning his state of mind. So if he didn't have all the tools (read here..mental conditioning) to win day in day out, how then can he be a failure? He only did what he could do with what he was given.
I guess Blake could jump off a bridge, and Roddick could go into therapy (with just about everyone else, and all the Slamless Wonders on tour) for a failed career.
How does Marat win so many DC and ATP five set matches (d. Gonzalez, Gasquet, Nalbandian, and Haas, Federer, Agassi in the latter etc.) and not care?
It is amazing how many people know what intelligence is. By definition, here, Roddick and Blake are the smart ones with the successful careers, Marat the mentally challenged one with the failed career!!

Posted by Ray Stonada 10/25/2007 at 12:01 PM

Original Frenchie, how did you get the idea that I am trying to "shoot down" Safin or make him "pay" (whatever that means)? I *like* Marat! I think you've read a lot of hostility into my post that wasn't there - I too think it's silly to think everyone can meet the standards of obsessive focus set by Federer and Nadal. I'm not sure if you and Rudi read the same thing I wrote!

Posted by Andrew Miller 10/25/2007 at 12:20 PM

Add Baghdatis to the Safin/Nalbandian group. As much as I love the Bag and think he's an unreal talent, I am thinking that it's not going to happen, or at least, not as often as one would want. (maybe a couple of surprises here and there).

Posted by Andrew Miller 10/25/2007 at 12:26 PM

Wont even go into the story of Marcelo Rios. For all intents and purpsoes and smashonomics, Fernando Gonzalez will go down in history as the better Chilean tennis player, which seems to say something about unfathomable ball striking talent. Either a player makes the most of it and accepts how lucky they are to play and give it a good ride, or they fade into obscure tennis trivia. Sorry to be harsh, but Rios confounds me, so the records books will confound him.

Posted by lulu 10/25/2007 at 12:42 PM

i'm rather fed up with reading again and again that safin doesn't practice and doesn't care enough... he's hired a new coach, tried again after the mountain stuff, he's basically been trying again and again for the last 2 years...

give him a break, come on... always the same stuff... it's nearly as depressing as seeing him lose so much latelt, never getting his tennis back as it was before that ruddy knee got injured.

every interview he's go to remind journalists that he's achieved stuff, just because they can't admit he'll never match all the hope they had in him 7 years ago... i guess it's tough enough for him dealing with his own problems...

and in forums he gets bashed by people saying he shoud retire every other day though they sorta wish he'll stay around.

sorry bout the rant, i just had to say it. i guess if marat was (or had beezeen) considered and talked about in a more measured way, he'd have less trouble now.

Posted by tina 10/25/2007 at 02:13 PM

Oh, Marat, baby - I'll help you figure it all out. Meet me in Diocletian's Palace in March. Maybe you need Goran to inspire you to one more big title. I'll be your chef, Croatian climbing guide, and guru. I'll even hook you up with my great Slovenian masseur and show you the "secret island". You gotta get yourself better before you can really take a stab at another major title.

Do people on forums actually say they wish he'd retire? I can't imagine that. Even when he's not playing his best, he contributes to the enjoyment of the sport. Oh, it'll be dreadful when Marat retires.

Maybe Nalbandian is a DC stalwart for Argentina - but did he have to insult Croatia at the start of 2006, when they were the holders, and Argentina were playing them in Zagreb? He actually accused Ancic of having a false injury. Sorry, I think that's bad form. Dude, if you care about Davis Cup, you ought to show a little respect to the young guy who actually won it.

I like the fact that Nalbandian won in Madrid, just to shake things up - but until I've seen him exhibit some nice manners, I can't say I support him. Not holding my breath.

Posted by grendel 10/25/2007 at 03:47 PM

Do people really call Safin "brainless" ? (Rudi, 11.49). One sign of intelligence, I would have thought, is to have no trouble spotting intelligence in others. By this criterion, there are some pretty stupid people out there, applying their laser like minds to the analysis of Mr.Safin.

Posted by SS 10/25/2007 at 04:02 PM

Original French(ie) - very nice (long) comment. Yes this article tastes like last week's dinner, 3rd time microwaved...same thing over and over again: we all love Safin, what a pity he underachieved, and we know why, because we had a microcamera hidden in his pants since we first discovered him. We also have 2 other cips in his brain and heart respectively, that's why we know what he cares or doesn't care about and what he's thinking of.

Or maybe I should actually like this article, since it might be better for Marat to be in the press - no matter how - when he's actually not plaing (and after 2 seasons of bad results) maybe it's Marat's fault that you guys have nothing new to write, so you just rewrite...

Posted by silvia 10/25/2007 at 05:11 PM

Samantha dear, you're my favourite: you call Marat a loser, you know he wasted his talent and did not even try (!) - I suppose the fact that he's struglling for 2 years and just hired a new coach are the very proofs that he is not trying to you - you also know he does not work hard, you blame him for running up a mountain to escape the responsability of playing for his country - it doesn't matter that he was injured: he should have come there limping, that's patriotism - but then you're claiming that you are not judging him...hmmm...I wonder how you would sound if you were judging him...

P.S. And the Go Justine, Word's # 1 is just priceless and indeed on topic!

Posted by The Original French(ie) 10/26/2007 at 04:17 AM

RAY: I really did read your post !!! You just seemed to jump into the "bandwagon" that's all. I do understand the reasons to evaluate, criticize, demystify or even make fun of players' careers but like I said, nothing you wrote a few days ago brought anything "new" (or a new perspective) to what is happening to the Russian. I think Safin was right to go "berserk" at Martin's article and the timing of your piece just made me wonder.

I liked your previous piece about Andy Murray (to this day,in my view, it was the most accurate depiction of his on court behavior) but about Safin it just seems to be the last nail on his casket so to speak ! Mentioning the Davis Cup that way (where he actually became a "heroic figure") or the fact that "journeymen" can easily defeat him can be infuriating. He is one of the few ATP stars (like it or not) and he does not necessarily get the professional respect his slams victories warrant.

I would have very much liked to read about you interviewing him for instance! That could be very interesting.

Safin's got peculiar, if weird, technique-shots (the jumped two-handed backhand), where does it come from? Who had the idea? Believe it or not he also said noteworthy things about his knee-injury and how he planned to work "around it" in the future. Did he start working that way with his new coach? What is this wrist injury about etc..

If anyone listened to him and asked interesting questions (non-poker related) perhaps this "knee-jerk" (no pun intended) antagonistic situation could have been avoided.

Posted by EZWRITER 10/27/2007 at 01:17 AM

Win or lose, I love that Crazy Russian. He's one of the best things to come along in tennis in the past decade. With 2 Slams, 2 Slam Runner-Ups, and 2 Davis Cups, he's got nothing left to prove to anybody, and he's earned the right to continue playing as long as he wants, or to stop whenever he wants.

This year, we've seen a bunch of other former #1 players win some tourneys and/or perform well in Slams (Moya, Hewitt, Ferrero). If Marat can get some of his confidence back, there is no reason why he can't do the same, or even better. He's a better all-around player than any of them.

I've also always liked that Nalbandian's crafty game, and am glad to see he's not going away. I didn't care for his personality so much until I saw him interviewed on Tennis Channel's "Center Court" show...the guy is far more personable and charming than his on-court demeanor would suggest. Way to go, David!

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