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Steve Flink: Breaking Down Marat

1/14/2008 2:47:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Think about Marat Safin, and the adjectives spring to mind rapidly. He is enigmatic and exasperating, mysterious and baffling, confounding and inimitable. He is inordinately talented, physically imposing, a daunting player to confront when he is playing his best brand of tennis. But Safin has made a habit out of leaving his boosters in a perpetual state of disappointment. His five set, second round departure against Marcos Baghdatis at the Australian Open is a sad cast in point.

Safin was fundamentally outplayed in this high quality contest for two sets. He was at the mercy of an inspired Baghdatis, who picked him apart from the baseline in exhilarating rallies, and served more purposefully and accurately. But then Safin found his range and started setting the tempo, taking charge in the rallies with superior pace and depth. He swept through the third and fourth sets, and seemed more than capable of running out the match with a flourish. Had he done that, had he managed to recover audaciously from two sets down against a player of Baghdatis's caliber, Safin might have been a serious factor in the first major of 2008.

Unfortunately, all too typically, he played an abysmal game on his serve at 0-1 in the fifth, making three unforced errors. Baghdatis raced to 3-0 in that final set, collecting 12 of 15 points, and never looking back. He recorded a 6-4, 6-4, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2 triumph. Gone was Safin, beaten early in yet another major, self destructing down the stretch. Safin should be one of Roger Federer's premier rivals. There is no reason for him not to be contending for major titles. But he came into Melbourne unseeded after a dismal 2007 campaign. What in the world is his problem?

The answer is perhaps found by closely examining the pattern of his career. Ten years ago, he upended Andre Agassi and defending champion Guga Kuerten at the French Open when he was 18, finishing that season entrenched among the top 50 in the world. In 1999, he progressed to No. 25. That set the stage for his astonishing 2000 campaign, when he won seven tournaments including the U.S. Open. In the Open final, he played the match of his life to oust Pete Sampras in straight sets. Safin put on a breathtaking display that day, keeping Sampras at bay with awesome power on serve and some of the best returning anyone has ever unleashed against the mighty American.

Safin had the world at his feet, and he knew it. He was unlucky not to finish that year at No. 1 in the world. The only way Kuerten could move past Safin to gain the year-end status at the top for 2000 was to beat Sampras and Agassi back to back in the semifinals and final of the Tennis Masters Cup in Lisbon. Somehow, Kuerten managed to do just that, and Safin had to settle for No. 2 in the world.

Be that as it may, he was slowed down considerably by back and knee injuries across 2001, finishing that year at No. 11 in the world despite reaching the semifinals of the U.S. Open. Predictably, Safin got off the mark quickly in 2002 and reached the final of the Australian Open with a gritty five set win over Tommy Haas. He faced Thomas Johansson in the final, and the title was conceivably in his pocket. But Safin bowed in four desultory sets. He went on to reach the semifinals at Roland Garros, where he was dissected by a top of the line Juan Carlos Ferrero. No shame there. Despite second round defeats at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, Safin finished 2002 back at No. 3 in the world.

Surely, he was on the verge of winning more majors and perhaps contending for No. 1 in the world. But that was not to be. He had a disastrous 2003 after dealing with a serious wrist injury, playing only 13 tournaments and missing three of the four majors. Safin slipped to No. 77 in the world, through no fault of his own. Once more, at the outset of 2004, he used the Australian Open as a springboard toward the upper levels of the game. He had a sparkling run at that first Grand Slam event of 2004, toppling Todd Martin, Andy Roddick and Agassi in five set skirmishes before losing the final to Roger Federer. Safin did not make it out of the fourth round in the remaining three majors (losing in the first round of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open), and yet he finished that season on the upswing. At the season-ending Masters Cup in Houston, he lost to Federer in the semifinals in straight sets, but lost in a sublime second set tie-break 20-18 to the world No.1.

Many believed that Safin was back, and would be a serious rival for Federer. Those who thought that was the case were vindicated by what happened at the 2005 Australian Open. Safin halted Federer in Melbourne 9-7 in the fifth set of an epic semifinal, saving a match point in the fourth set tie-break. It was a stupendous performance, full of inspiration, dazzle, and grit. He then struck back boldly from a set down to beat Lleyton Hewitt in a four set final. Safin finally had his second major, virtually assuring himself of an eventual place at the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

Now, at last, Safin had matured and seemed ready to finally do justice to his stockpile of capability on the court. At 25, he had seemingly come of age. Inexplicably, he went into a terrible slump, and then his left knee started acting up, disrupting the rest of the year and stifling his progress. Safin stood at No. 13 in the world at the end of 2005, which was a major disappointment considering how he commenced that season. Although he dropped to No. 26 at the end of 2006, the fact remained that he put much of his emotional energy into helping Russia win the Davis Cup, and he was fully rewarded for that dedication as they took the Cup. His role in that triumph was considerable.

Despite giving us every sign that he was ready to make another serious bid to collect more majors after the way he ended 2006, Safin has faded again. Last year, he finished at No. 56 in the world after a dismal season, failing to make it out of the fourth round in all of the Grand Slam tournaments. And now he has wasted another opportunity at the start of 2008 by losing a match he could well have won against Baghdatis at the Australian Open.

The way I see it, Safin has been one of the great wasted talents in the modern game, perhaps the greatest waste of all. When he won the 2000 U.S. Open, I believed he would go on to win somewhere between five and seven major title triumphs in his career, but he has only two in his collection now. To be sure, when he began making an impact in the late 1990's, he had flaws. His ground strokes were top of the line but he had no clue how to volley. But by 2001, he had largely corrected that problem. From that juncture on, it was never a case of Safin having technical liabilities; it was much more about the state of his impossibly erratic mind.

He should be right in the thick of things, up there at No. 4 in the world behind Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, threatening all of them when he is at his best. Instead, Safin has wandered into relative mediocrity. To be sure, he played some great tennis against Bagdhatis, and there were stages in the third and fourth sets where he looked like an authentic championship contender. But time and again, he seems to manufacture defeat from the clutches of victory. To put it more succinctly, he finds ways to lose matches he should surely win.

I am not saying he is not giving it everything he has. But he is a head case of rare dimensions. He is almost always his own worst enemy. He seems to be fighting inner demons as much as he battles to overcome opponents. Safin is almost 28 now, and he won't have much longer to give himself a chance to win another Grand Slam championship. The window may be open for only another year or two. I wish he would recognize his circumstances for what they are, and lift his game back up where it belongs.

To dismiss his chances of a resurrection would be foolish. But I am not optimistic that Marat Safin will ever revisit his greatness. It may be too late for this perplexing man.

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