The first image that comes to mind when someone speaks of Marat Safin is that famous fiery temper, racquet smashing antics and out-of-the-blue emotional outbursts on the court when things went awry. It is not surprising given that he broke 87 racquets in a year, a record that still stands (a grand total of 1155 racquets have been broken by Safin during his 12 year professional career). But what people ignore, or perhaps don’t know, is that there was so much more to this immensely powerful player than just his temperamental side.
He won two Grand Slams in his career – the US Open in 2000 and the Australian Open in 2005. He reached the world No. 1 ranking in his career, a position he held for a total of nine weeks. And given his dislike of grass courts, he managed to reach the semi-finals of Wimbledon in 2008 (becoming the first ever Russian to reach this stage at the All-England Club) before succumbing to the irrepresible Roger Federer.
Safin’s journey into the world of professional tennis began in 1997 and just one year on, he stunned the world after blitzing Andre Agassi and defending champion Gustavo Kuerten at the French Open in consecutive matches. The blueprint had been laid, this would be the stepping stone into the world of champions for the giant Russian.
In 2000, Safin climbed to No. 1 in the ATP ranking when he clinched his first Grand Slam trophy at the US Open, becoming the first and till date the only Russian male to win this tournament. He produced some scintillating tennis in the final to overcome bookies favorite Pete Sampras in straight sets.
Safin, at the top of his game at the turn of the century, reached three more Grand Slam finals, all at the Australian Open (2002,2004 and 2005). He blamed nervousness and and physical exhaustion for his losses at the 2002 and 2004 events respectively but it was in 2005 that he finally managed to shake off the hoodoo and clinch his second Grand Slam title in five years.
His hiring of Peter Lundgren, Roger Federer’s coach till 2003, was seen as an inspired choice and despite catching fire after falling into an active volcano prior to the 2005 Australian Open, he was considered as one of the favourites for the title. The tournament still ranks as one of the best Grand Slams in history. He broke millions of hearts as he saw off home favorite Lleyton Hewitt in the final in four sets. But the match of that particular Grand Slam came against Roger Federer in the semi-finals, a five set epic which Safin edged 5-7, 6-4, 5-7, 7-7, 9-7. Safin, in typical languid and non-descript fashion, described this as “a brain fight”.
But inbetween this sparkling run of form, Safin endured a nightmare in 2003 when a succession of injuries prevented him from playing at major tournaments. It was early years then, but this would prove to be a constant thorn in Safin’s career down the line. The final straw came in 2005 when he suffered a serious knee injury during the clay court season. He struggled on with the help of painkillers but never fully recovered from this.
Safin has won five ATP Tennis Masters Series titles, among them a record-tying three in Paris (2000, 2002 and 2004). The other two titles were won in Toronto and Madrid. He also played a vital role in Russia’s Davis Cup wins in 2002 and 2006.
Safin’s final tournament came in the Paris Masters in 2009. A second round loss to Juan Martin Del Potro brought down the curtains on Safin’s career. A special presentation was held on Center COurt follwing the game and was attended by fellow tennis professionals including Del Potro, Tommy Robredo, Novak Djokovic, Gilles Simon and Ivo Karlovic.
Safin boasted a brutally powerful and accurate serve and phenomenal groundstrokes ability. His packed a fearsome punch with his backhand, a major weapon in his armoury. Bjorn Borg has admitted he has not seen anyone hitting the ball with such fierce brutality as the giant Russian in a long, long time. Safin was also unusually quick for a player of his size.
But ever since suffering that knee-injury in 2005, he lost form and consistency. He became erratic and his emotional outbursts, for which he was consistently fined, increased in ferocity. He claimed that grass was his least favorite playing surface and the reason for hsi poor showings at Wimbledon.
We have been lucky enough to see this charismatic Russian play at the peak of his powers, defeating favorites and champions along the way, upsetting the odds as he powered along. He has had his critics, but let’s put that aside and remember and appreciate him for the wonderful tennis he played and for the joyous moments he produced on the court for himself and for us tennis fans. A tip of the hat for you, Marat Safin.