Insane Talent Marat Safin's game is brilliant, unpredictable and wildly entertaining--like the first week of the French Open

June 06, 2004

There is no show in tennis like Marat Safin. He's capable of
anything: madness, genius, spontaneous striptease. Last week his
persona grew so large that it infected the entire French Open.
Defending champions, top seeds and every male U.S. player fell
victim to a mesmerizing unpredictability. When, last Thursday,
Safin celebrated a wondrous point in his two-day, five-set win
over Felix Mantilla by yanking down his shorts, it seemed only
fitting. "I don't know why," he said. "I felt like pulling my
pants down."

On Saturday night against 202nd-ranked Potito Starace, Safin kept
his clothes on but displayed all the other qualities that make
him impossible to ignore. The 6'4" Russian ripped sterling
backhands, tossed second-serve bombs, flicked forehand passes
through nonexistent holes. As usual, he also made things harder
than necessary: His hands blistered, and the match became a
five-set epic. Safin muttered to his racket, bellowed at the sky.
By saving a match point, he sent the crowd into a rapturous chant
of "Mar-at! Mar-at!" Then, when he took an injury break after
saving a second match point, the fans whistled in rage. An hour
later Safin thrust a bloodied fist into the air and walked off
the winner. He was booed into the night.

Earlier, after an errant forehand, Safin had summed up his career
by screaming, "Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?" No other player is so
bewildering. The funny, handsome Safin is charming one minute, a
bully the next. He admits that his U.S. Open win in 2000 retarded
his progress: too much too fast, with nearly $9 million in income
since then. Friends struggle to explain him. "He's a masochist,"
says his agent, Gerard Tsobanian. "He's like a woman," says Anna
Kournikova, who first met him in grade school.

Everyone waits for Safin, who was eliminated on Monday by David
Nalbandian, to become the champion he was meant to be. But it may
be too late. "This is the way I am," he said. "I can't do
anything about it." He could be an all-time great, but he's a
slave to paradox. Safin loves himself too much, and not nearly
enough.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN Against Starace, Safin--and his blistered fingers--were stretchedto the limit.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)