Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - Marat TV: Taking New York
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Marat TV: Taking New York 11/06/2009 - 2:17 PM

It's highly unlikely that anyone will ever refer to the past 12 years of men's tennis as the “Marat Safin era.” As much as he did over that time, and the man did a lot, it was his contemporary, Roger Federer, who achieved an epoch-defining stature. Instead Safin became the world’s most talented and temperamental sideshow, a show that will be airing its final episode next week at the Paris Masters.

Nine years ago, when the last ball of the 2000 U.S. Open had been hit, a “Safin era” seemed like a very real possibility. Just 20 years old, the Russian had dismantled the best player of the 1990s, Pete Sampras, in three quick sets in front of Sampras' home-country fans. Beyond that, Safin appeared to be an evolutionary leap for the sport. He was 6-foot-4 and blessed with fluid, impeccable timing on every stroke. His two-handed backhand was as much of a weapon as his forehand, and his return was as potent as his serve. He had all the makings of a new model for the men’s game.

The Safin era was destined to be a very short one. It lasted for two months, ending, for all intents and purposes, at the final tournament of that season, the Masters Cup in Lisbon. That’s where Gustavo Kuerten put on the performance of his life, beating Sampras and Andre Agassi on an indoor hard court and catching Safin, who lost in the semifinals, at the wire for the year-end No. 1 ranking. I remember being surprised by how devastated Safin was after this relative failure. You got the sense that it confirmed something that he suspected about himself, that he wasn’t a winner after all. Either Safin was right, or it was the first step in a career-long self-fulfilling prophecy.

Anyway, let’s take a look at the high point of Safin’s brief reign, the long, nerve-wracking final game against Sampras at Flushing Meadows.

—Right off we hear John McEnroe make a telling comment. Sampras is serving at 2-5 in the third, one game from losing the match. Safin has apparently hit a strong return, which McEnroe describes as “routine.” He goes on to say that Sampras’ kick serve bounces right into the “zone” of the 6-foot-4 Safin. McEnroe had identified two elements in the sport that would gain importance in the next decade: height, and the return of serve.

—The first observation we must make is how young Safin looks, of course. He would age pretty dramatically over the coming years. He lumbered around the court in between points even then, but he appears to be calm as he gets set to serve out his first major title. Even after opening the game with a double fault, he stays cool under the pressure of Sampras’ approaches, rifling two passing shot winners on the next two points.

—Sampras at 29 is sweaty and haggard. Ten years earlier, he had served notice of his own generation’s ascent by ending Ivan Lendl’s run of eight straight final-round appearances at the Open on his way to winning his first major. Seeing Sampras take one last stab at Safin—up until this game, he hadn’t had a break point—I have the same reaction I’ve had watching other old Sampras clips. Where I used to think of him as dull and a little smug, his demeanor now seems almost heroically controlled to me now. His method of competing is the opposite of someone like Rafael Nadal’s. Sampras was about not getting fired up; for him, it was about the long-term rather than the moment, about not getting especially high or low after any one point. You can see the conscious effort he makes to settle himself before each return. 

—Each of Safin’s ground strokes would get a little longer and more elaborate over the years. I wonder if this hurt him. Here he’s prepared for anything Sampras throws at him.

—What a torturous game this must have been for Safin. He started with a double, missed every first serve until it was break point, and hit the tape with what must have seemed like a gimme backhand pass at deuce, allowing Sampras a second break point. But he held up like the future champion he wouldn't turn out to be. He saved both break points bravely, by moving to the net for a swinging volley and a spectacular stretch-back overhead. Then he swung the momentum permanently back in his direction by keeping his nerves at bay and outlasting Sampras through a long baseline rally. No wonder Safin got down on his knees and kissed the court afterward.

—Two quotes from Safin about this match remain two of his best, and show both sides of the man.

Afterward, he was asked if he was going to get drunk that night. 

Safin: “Guys, do you want me to say ‘yes’ to put in the press? Between us, I hope so.”

Seven years later, after losing early at the Open, a reporter said, “When you won here in 2000, Sampras said you were able to be No. 1 in the world for as long a time as you wanted to.”

Safin: “See, even the geniuses make the mistakes. He was wrong.”

Was Sampras as wrong as Safin thought? The Russian was No. 1 for only a brief period. That wasn’t because he didn’t want to be there longer; it was because, at some point, perhaps as soon as Lisbon, he stopped believing he belonged there.

Whatever the reason, judging by the way Safin held off Sampras at the Open, he still believed he could be a great champion at this point. In that sense, the 2000 final is a glimpse of a potential alternate tennis history, one in which Safin kept his head and controlled his frustration at the biggest moments. As it was, it would happen only once more, in Australia in 2005. The rest of the time, we got the Safin show. The clip above gives us an idea of what the Safin era might have looked like.


We’ll see how the show ends in a few days. Have a good weekend


Posted by Toriton 11/06/2009 at 03:13 PM

Pretty good article...

Posted by BrooklynNY 11/06/2009 at 03:29 PM

hmmm....Hewitt also played during this period of time. And federer was coming of age... and Agassi just made his return...

There are many reasons why Safin didn't live up to your expectations

Posted by sensationalsafin 11/06/2009 at 04:18 PM

I usually don't post here but I couldn't help myself. "In that sense, the 2000 final is a glimpse of a potential alternate tennis history, one in which Safin kept his head and controlled his frustration at the biggest moments." I've been saying that for years and this article makes me want to cry for all the time Safin wasn't number one.

Posted by Mr. and Mrs. D. 11/06/2009 at 05:53 PM

"But he held up like the future champion he wouldn't turn out to be." this line.

Enjoyed the article. No mention of Marat's knee injury....I've always heard his game/movement changed (slowed) after that. Would this also have something to do with his inability to recapture elite status?

Posted by stokes 11/06/2009 at 06:22 PM

Hi, i liked your article but you did forget one important issue that he has had numerous injuries. After winning the Australian Open '05 he had a serious knee injury and Mr Safin was not the same and has admitted this in many interviews since then. I don't agree that he unfilled his ability as a tennis player because he has won 15 titles including 2 Grand Slams so i would not class his career achievement as a failure. Mr Safin will be missed in the tennis world for his honesty, tennis ability and explosive personality.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 11/06/2009 at 07:30 PM

Nice, Steve. Lots of little gems here.

The only thing you wrote above that I take umbrage with (maybe that's too strong a word, maybe not) is this: "You got the sense that it confirmed something that he suspected about himself, that he wasn’t a winner after all."

A GOAT candidate? No. A champion? Twice, yes. An underachiever? Seriously debatable. A tortured solu? Also debatable, but seemingly yes. A winner? Definitely, yes.

Anyone who can even make it to the big leagues and prevail in one tournament, let alone as many as Safin has, is a winner. These are people who very rarely tasted defeat until they reached the pinnacle of their sport. Some simply reach their peak, they bump up against the ceiling of their talents and desire. Others struggle with the lifestyle that places unusual demands on young people. Others simply find that in that rarefied air, only a select few are privileged to breathe easy.

But somehow, to say that "he wasn't a winner after all" is too harsh, I think.

Posted by JerkStore 11/06/2009 at 07:32 PM

and dick enberg ruins another final

Posted by Kombo 11/06/2009 at 08:37 PM

This article failed to make even a single mention of injuries. They are a significant part of the narrative.

Posted by Doodles 11/06/2009 at 09:30 PM

Yeah the injuries are a valid point, but you HAVE to remember the way in which he won those finals. He beat the beat two of the best players to ever play the game in the process.

I just feel that he was an underachiever, in the sense that people with less game have achieved more, and he should have. You only have to look back at the level of play at the AO 2005 final to see that.

I wish he had found someone who could have calmed those inner demons, Lundgren did for a while, just wished someone like him had showed up at a more critical juncture in his career. He definitely would have cleaned up during the dearth of talent prior to the fed-era.

Posted by Ade 11/07/2009 at 01:04 AM

"McEnroe had identified two elements in the sport that would gain importance in the next decade: height, and the return of serve".

McEnroe was the genius, not Safin.

Posted by Corrie 11/07/2009 at 07:06 AM

Yes, injuries affected Safin, and so did the presence of other good players, but also, so did his enjoyment off court and lack of dedication to the grind of the tour. I wouldn't call him a tortured soul, just someone who enjoyed himself beyond the tennis court, and that included some habits unhelpful to tennis, such as smoking.

I remember his entourage of blondes at the AO too, and how he managed to lose the final to Thomas Johansson. All part of the fun of being Safin. But he was so brilliant against Sampras it was disappointing that he never quite did it again.

Posted by tennisfan76 11/07/2009 at 08:24 AM

Nice article, Steve, though I agree with the posters who feel you should have mentioned Safin's knee injury, which damaged his confidence as well as his movement. Obviously he had back problems in 2001 and a wrist injury in 2003, but he managed to come back from those quite successfully. I watched this match on YouTube a few months back, and it's kind of weird to hear commentators talking about Safin as "the future of tennis." I think it would have been cool if Marat and Roger had been rivals for longer than 2/3 years, their matches were usually competitive affairs before that knee injury hit Safin in 2005. Just imagine the press conferences if Marat was still a top 10 player, LOL.
I assumed Steve meant that Marat wasn't a winner in the Roger Federer sense of the word, i.e. multiple slams. But to be honest I always liked the fact he realised there was more to life than tennis, so I can't bring myself to criticise him for that. I also wish he'd stuck with Peter Lundgren, he seemed to be a calming influence on Marat.

Posted by FedererFTW 11/07/2009 at 01:18 PM

Really nice article. It really is a tremendous shame for Safin that he wasn't able to fully utilize his enormous talent out there. IMO he is the second most talented player after Federer in the post Sampras-Agassi time.

He was absolutely awesome when he was on. Like people mention and have been mentioning for a number of years now, his numerous injuries and his unwillingness to focus on Tennis was his ultimate downfall. Nothing wrong with his game that you could say, yep that's why he can't win. Sure his game did not have the variety of Federer, but he had a big serve, huge groundstrokes (one of the best 2handed backhands EVER), he moved great for a big strong guy, he could last the distance (his 5 set record is very good) had a pretty good return game and when need be, serve and volley.

Could he have won 15 GS like Federer has now (BTW I think Fed will win a few more before he is done to)? Probably not, could he have won, say 6-8, yes, and just maybe up to 10, IMO (maybe I am exaggerating a little). I actually think he has achieved just about everything people expected him to achieve, just not as many times as everyone thought, and I believe hoped that he would.

I was looking at his year by year statistics (had nothing better to do) recently and saw that he has lost so many close 3 setters in best of 3 set matches (a lot of tiebreaks as well) that it is just mind blowing. No wonder he threw so many racquets. If you compare Marat to Roger (right now it is laughable, as far as results go...) they lost a fair amount of close matches when they were youngsters and they threw racquets, berated themselves, cursed, etc. The OBVIOUS difference is that Roger realized this earlier and learned a lot from it, and was able to calm himself and play more relaxed and let the results come to him. Marat never did that, and even though a lot of the times it fired him up to perform better during his matches, it also cost him a lot of close and important ones which he could and should have won. It was almost like he wanted to just crack everything, and it just would not work out for him. I like the inclusion of Lundgren, tennisfan76. He is a great coach and should be applauded for what he has done with the players he has coached. I really thought that after winning the 05 AO he would be more serious about his tennis and would go on to have a sort of a "Agassi-like" 2nd half of his career in which he would win a few more majors, but it was never meant to be, I guess....

A winner? Yes! A classic case of underachieving? IMO, YES! A headcase, oh was he ever!

Posted by luxsword 11/07/2009 at 05:34 PM


Posted by tennis 11/08/2009 at 05:07 AM

Nice aricle!!.. good work...

Posted by Vinod Nambiar 11/09/2009 at 08:14 AM

Nice article Steve! As always!

Safin always makes good reading. So many people talk of unfulfilled potential, marbe the way to look at it is inspite of his madness he achieved so much. Dont u think? Is he the only great potential who underperformed. Just in the last 20 years we have had- Goran, Krajicek, Rios, Philippousis, Nalbandian and these are just of the top of my head ...they sure have been more...and i'd say Marat has achieved more than any of these the end of the day watching Fed, Pete, Andre, Rafa, Boris and others over the years tells u 1 thing- its all in the head ultimately....dont judge potential simply looking at the stroke production...the strength of the mind has to be part of any exercise in judging potential....and no single match can give u that..even if that involves killing one of the greatest in a slam final in his backyard!

Posted by vinod nambiar 11/09/2009 at 08:31 AM

in my previous post i said all in the head....i am including heart as part of head in my definition of head.

Posted by Nicole 11/09/2009 at 11:38 PM

Full disclosure: I'm a relatively recent tennis fan who gets hearts in her eyes every time Marat steps out on court, until the frown of frustration takes over.

Everything I know from before USO 2007 is second hand or youTube.

But I watched Wimbledon 2008, where Safin mowed through the field. On his least favorite surface. Through Djokovic, who was the second favorite to win that year.

I disagree with the idea that Safin didn't want it enough. I think he wanted it too much. And I think he was disheartened when for whatever reason he felt that he couldn't be the best, and so he just made himself care less because it hurts less that way.

In any event, it makes me sad. I'd never seen this clip before. I wish the whole match was available. It looks like a classic.

Posted by tina 11/11/2009 at 09:43 AM

One hour into his retirement, and I'm still a little misty from the sweet ceremony in Bercy.

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