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
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,
"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,
"Once I asked Marat this question and I loved his answer," says 2009 French Open champ
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
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
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
We have seen his like since, of course. In recent years it has been easy to roll one's eyes at the Russians --
"It was a function of tennis never being something I chose,"
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?"