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In praise of Safin -- the head case

NEW YORK -- We should've known when they wheeled the liquor cart into the press conference, bottles clinking, laughter rising. "Are you going to get drunk tonight?" someone asked Marat Safin. He was the new champion of Flushing Meadow then, at 20 a shockingly easy winner of the 2000 U.S. Open over the unbeatable Pete Sampras. "Between us?" he grinned. "I hope so."

We didn't know that night that he'd be, for the rest of the decade, pro tennis' biggest puzzle. All we saw in Marat Safin then was the total package: TV handsome, fluent in English, Spanish and Russian, oozing talent, humor, a biting intelligence. All we knew is that he had a killer backhand and an all-surface game, that he wasn't a grind: The liquor cart told us that. Marat looked like fun. He looked like the future.

We were all searching for the next star then. No one figured that a man can actually have too much charisma, that a searching mind can be the worst enemy of great physical gifts. The liquor cart was different, yes, but he was Russian and we added it up: Russians ... vodka ... sure. Who knew that he'd go down, even with another Grand Slam title and two more major finals, as one of the game's great wastes? As the head case who somehow gave head cases a good name? As a figure who still leaves even his devoted sister, Dinara, confused?

"Sometimes," the No. 1 player in the women's game said Tuesday, "it's not easy to understand my brother."

Dinara is, in tennis terms, not a bit like Marat: She desperately lives for the game he always could take or leave. "If Marat had had 10 percent of her dedication he'd have been the No. 1 player for 10 years," his manager, Ion Tiriac, said in Paris this summer. "If Safina had 10 percent of Marat's talent, she would be 10 years the No. 1 player."

All those Ifs. In the end -- and that's where we are here, at the 2009 U.S. Open, with the announced end of Marat's Grand Slam career, with the final Dostoyevskian coda a 1-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 first-round loss Wednesday to Jurgen Melzer -- that's what head cases leave you with. Next to Roger Federer, Safin was always considered the man with the cleanest shots, the best hands; he could've been Federer, the line always goes, if he'd wanted it more. They ask the question still about Safin, from Moscow to Manhattan: What if?

"Once I asked Marat this question and I loved his answer," says 2009 French Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova. "Maybe it's not good for press, but he just says, 'If grandma would have balls, she would be a grandpa.' It's an expression we say it in Russian: If? What would happen if? But If didn't happen."

Mostly because Safin never wanted it to, not nearly enough. He was known throughout his career as much for his quips, his on-court rages, his hilarious complaints as his results, the flashy women cheering him in his box. Women have always fluttered about. "He's a very broad person," says Davis Cup teammate Dmitry Tursunov. "Not just about tennis, or about women. People give him labels: He's a womanizer. But it's hard not to be a womanizer if every woman jumps at you."

Once, Safin pulled down his pants to celebrate winning a spectacular point at the 2004 French Open -- the perfect encapsulation, really, of all, good and goofy, that he could do. Asked afterward to explain himself, he said, "I don't know why. Because ... because I did it. It just happened."

We tried to dig deeper. "Some people play a point, stupendous point, raise their fist in the air," someone asked in the press conference afterward. "I don't think I've ever seen anybody pull their pants down to celebrate winning a point. What in your mind said, Pull my pants down?"

"I don't know," Safin said. "I felt this way. I felt it was a great point for me. I felt like pulling my pants down. What's bad about it?"

We wanted Safin to care more, of course. We wanted him to want winning as much as the rest of the world wanted to win, the way Sampras and Federer, who once was a head case himself, learned to want to win. We wondered if it was his hard-driving mother, famed taskmaster Rausa Islanova, who made Marat so eager to escape to Spain when he was 13, who made him hold tennis at arm's length the rest of his career. We heard about his climbing in the Himalayas, remembered a visit to his echoing Miami apartment in 2001, the only personal effects his clothes and a thick novel by Paulo Coelho. He seemed to be searching. He seemed to find the world of pro tennis absurd.

Fellow Russian Anna Kournikova pulled up in a car that day, giggling and loose; Safin gave her a half-wave and hurried with his distinctive rolling gait into the lobby. The air was thick then with rumor about a marriage to hockey star Sergei Fedorov: Kournikova was another Russian star en route to underachievement. Asked how she was doing, she laughed and said, "Ahh, one guy says we're engaged, another says we're married. Next thing you know, some guy's going to say I got him pregnant."

It was a great line, funny and quick in a way Kournikova never allowed herself to be in public. By then her game, too, had gotten tangled up by people's attraction to her; she never found a way to undermine it by poking fun at herself, at that whole Anna Kournikova phenomenon, and for the first time Safin's distraction made a kind of sense. What better way to defuse the pressure -- all those expectations -- than to laugh at it? To moon it? To treat it with a mocking contempt?

"Safin might have done as well as he has because he didn't treat it as seriously," Tursunov says. "If he did, he'd probably be much more tense. He never asked for his talent. It's unfortunate that everybody sticks their opinion on him, but he doesn't think his life has been a downward spiral. And the best part is that he doesn't really give a crap."

We have seen his like since, of course. In recent years it has been easy to roll one's eyes at the Russians -- Elena Dementieva and her serving problems, the off-again, on-again careers of Anastasia Myskina and Kuznetzova, the current meltdowns suffered by Safina anytime she nears or plays a Grand Slam final. But from Bill Tilden to Pancho Gonzalez to Ilie Nastase to John McEnroe and beyond, no flag has been immune. Tennis has always been marbled by strains of self-loathing and self-destruction, by players at once entranced and repelled by the talent they wield.

"It was a function of tennis never being something I chose," Andre Agassi said of his early career late Monday. "It taught me some real harsh lessons, and I never hid how I felt. Some days it was pretty scary how much anger I could feel, how much fear I could feel, how much tennis could impact me."

We don't understand this. It's easier to embrace the grinds, the champions, the ones, like Agassi or Federer, who learn to ward off their demons and arrive at some sense of balance. They reassure us. They tell us it's possible. But maybe it's time to praise the other breed instead of attempting another quick burial; the head cases make the game compelling in a way the grinds can't. Safin will be missed, because he reminded us to expect only the unexpected.

"Andre had the problems with the head, Marat had problems with consistency; so did I, Dinara maybe she has something missing in her game," Kuznetsova says. "Everybody has a problem. Who's better is who fights and how far it goes. This is life: It's the same in the court and out of the court. It's talent what we have, or willingness we have to work. That's why it's so interesting to live, no?"

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