With the Australian Open less than a week away, the 2010 season will start without one the most fascinating players of the last decade. Marat Safin, the enigmatic Russian, retired after this past 2009 season.
He walked away with two Grand Slam championships, a host of other wins, and perhaps the most gifted natural skill set tennis has ever seen. A powerful forehand, dangerous serve, and divine two-handed backhand were all at his disposal.
Before knee injuries set in Safin moved well for a man of his height and could paint the lines like the all-time greats. His backhand was indeed a work of art: flowing, consistent, and heavy. His serve was not rocket-powered but well placed and capable of racking up an ace with ease. Safin's forehand was an underrated weapon, using it both to set up his backhand or reel off a winner. He was also adept at net when necessary.
In recent Australian Open history, it is difficult to overlook the epic five set semifinal marathon between Safin and Roger Federer in 2005. Both players put on a clinic in hard court tennis and there was no shortage of mesmerizing shots.
Tiebreaks, gutty breaks and holds of serve, and a 9-7 fifth set show how competitive this match was. Two of the best players in the game facing off, Safin overpowering Federer.
The Safin of that match and resulting final was the player that everyone expected to see each week. No point seemed out of reach. Every shot he fired back was a potential winner. His confidence and focus could not be rattled. The inconsistent, volatile, and sometimes indifferent Marat that showed up more often was cast aside. Men's tennis was better when he played to his potential.
His on-court difficulties have been well-documented and discussed to death. Countless rackets were broken or smashed, every umpire was belittled and questioned, and the press were left scratching their heads after his often playful answers. Safin became identifiable to most fans, always respected and cheered no matter the venue. If nothing else people just wanted to see him succeed and exorcise his demons.
Beneath all of explosiveness and chaos was a man with some perspective. During the last couple years, especially his final season when he begrudgingly announced his plans to retire months in advance, Safin was repeatedly asked to look back at his career. He did not always mention the championships or the drama on the court.
Safin instead recounted the hard work he put in from a young age to get to the top. In fact, Safin stated that he had no regrets in an interview after his loss in the 2009 US Open.
The whole transcript offers a rather unfiltered look into his thoughts about his time on tour. Overall, Safin was grateful for the opportunity that he was presented and took hold of. Acknowledging his temper made him seem more real, not a mystified star like Federer or Pete Sampras.
He was honest, perhaps to a fault, and what you saw from him was not fabricated or rehearsed. One minute he left fans in awe. The next minute they were shocked. One of the many reasons why there was no other player like him.
Safin was aware that there was more to the world than tennis. Losing a match was not the end of the world and while he did come off as a defeatist on the court, his disposition after a match was remarkably assured. The lost points that drove him into a frenzy an hour or so earlier rolled off his shoulders while he recognized the big picture.
The winnings, travel, and notoriety were the result of hard work; a few losses were not going to spoil all that he achieved. Safin realized his blessings and on many occasions mentioned that tennis saved him from other less than ideal pursuits.
Tennis, like all professional athletics, is results-based. Wins, prize money, and statistics drive already competitive athletes to extreme proportions. Perspective is often lost as ego creeps in and athletes ascend to iconic status. Safin provided a relief from all of this.
At times he could be mistaken for an everyman player, flubbing forehands and bouncing his racket off the court in frustration. Candid during interviews and refreshingly unique on the court, Safin will be remembered for his personality as much as his game.
In the end, Safin left an indelible mark on the game of tennis, both good and bad. The ATP has lost an inimitable personality and talented player. Current stars like Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Gael Monfils have charisma and ability but cannot replicate the magic Safin brought to the court.
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