Having everything and nothing

Safin kisses the trophy after defeating the indomitable Pete Sampras in straight sets in the 2000 U.S. Open final.-AP

What was always a tempestuous affair between a moody lover and a demanding love, Marat Safin gave the sport and the ever eager public an honest slice of his life, without admixing the ingredients to accentuate one effect or diminish another, writes Raakesh Natraj.

“His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless.”

Hemingway on Scott Fitzgerald in “A Moveable Feast” M arat Safin and tennis happened perchance. Forced into the game by parents who were coaches, rejected by the Bollettieri Academy which said ‘nothing could be made of him’, dispatched at age 14 to distant Valencia, things could have gone horribly wrong even before he made anything of the rare physical genius he was indued with. The reaches of his virtuosity were by himself unplumbed, and to opponents and the public unknown. Awash with youth, and with a kind of prescience that it brings, Safin let time, age, fulfilment and promise, notions that prey constantly on the minds of the blessed, those termites that grow bolder with the years and failure, lie. To do that, he sometimes had to close his eyes and just play. Like he admitted to have done in the final of the 2000 U.S. Open against Pete Sampras, who had not been defeated in a Slam final for five years running then. An embarrassingly easy 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 win gave the Tartar his first Grand Slam title and his subsequent coronation atop the ATP standings.

Genius intact, gift unquestioned, guilt unfamiliar, Safin had waltzed to the Trepak, circumscribing circles of wider and wilder exhilaration, and then he ran into the wall of reconciliation. Not the one that happens at the end of a squabble, but quite the opposite, one that comes at the end of a happy, deserved resolution. On one side was the familiar idea of genius and with it the unending possibilities, and on the other, the limited definition it had come to acquire, the very standardising of results, the categorisation, the count and the comparison. The very presence of the trophy, with its clear, shapely edges, seemed to rob him of a sense of the ineffable. The gyres of the waltz were replaced by the regimented trot. “There was nothing else to achieve,” he says. “Still, there was an emptiness in my heart. I had everything, but I had nothing.” It was perhaps the shadow of a recognition that he was somehow pawning his talent, bartering it for shiny metal, and that his success had forever condemned him to compete, not play.

An injured knee, the increasing obsession of the Russian media, the constant pressure — he had reservations about playing in the Kremlin Cup, for each time someone in the crowd shouted ‘Russia’, Safin said he felt like the whole nation’s eyes were trained on him, like the tectonic plates had somehow instantly transferred the burden of carrying the motherland on to him — and his own inner ferment led to Safin either spending time out on the sidelines, or contemplating runs of indifferent form.

Safin was getting increasingly familiar with the flavour of defeat. In an interview he made an astute analogy revealing a lot about the psychogenic quagmire he was finding himself in. “Imagine: during the season I play 25 tournaments and win, say, five. That means that in the rest I lose. On different stages, but lose all the same. There are not many sports where losses happen so often. A football team which loses 20 matches a season will crash into second or third league. I stay at the top, obviously but constantly get smacked by my opponents... Several straight losses can cause complexes which you can’t get out of by yourself. Then you start to lose it.”

Sportsmen live in a plane where time is not what the layman sets his watch to, living lives measured out as we do, with coffee spoons. Genius often distends time, having as its attributes both precocity and longevity, periods of heightened prowess and a lifetime of restlessness. Safin reiterated, more to himself than to the press or the public, that he was no genius. He, perhaps, was not too comfortable with the time warp, after all it only entailed a small difference in the end, a change of cutlery, plaques for spoons.

Marat Safin (right) with his team-mates after Russia won the Davis Cup in 2002.-

The other aspect that he was always wary of, was what lay beyond it all, the cruel possibility that he might lose the vigour of his best days to the game. “You can lose a lot of years in this game. You can come completely white.” Professional sports, which demands a streak of competitiveness, one that is looked on with pardonable indulgence even when it comes out as ruthlessness or obsession, that you plan and strategise not just for games, but for whole seasons, that you consider your time on the circuit a life-time in itself, sometimes leaving behind just the rind and the seeds, began to lose its hold on Safin. “We are in the sixteenth of January man. I don’t know if I will be alive tomorrow. Don’t ask me what’s going to be in September,” Safin once said.

Safin ghosted through seasons, moving about the court like Jacob Marley, weighed down with the chains of torment. Abandoned by the decisiveness, the hunger and split-second instincts, he wielded the racquet a wearied and disillusioned man, prompting allegations of tanking and disrespecting the game. Yet, through this spell, Safin spearheaded Russia to its first Davis Cup triumph in 2002 (a feat he repeated in 2006), reached the final of the Australian Open twice, in 2002 and 2004. On the first instance, the Safin who had dethroned Sampras with a brand of carefree, rapturous tennis, a performance which prompted Sampras to call it ‘the tennis of the future’, was nowhere to be seen, as he lost meekly to the unheralded Thomas Johansson. In 2004, Roger Federer took care of a beleaguered Safin, who had waded through round after round of five-setters, which was partly due to his own erratic ‘mad monk’ style of play. He talked of the past more often, a worrying sign in the best of times, as if by reminiscing he could recreate some of the magic he seemed to have irrevocably lost. “In 2000 I think I played amazing tennis. I had so much confidence. I was playing just great. I was impressed myself that I could play such great tennis.” Suddenly, he had forgotten to construct a point, build a game or eke out a set.

Then, as abruptly and inexplicably as things had gone bad, everything seemed to come together by the end of 2004. The ease first, then the control, then the eye to envision, and finally the calm that he previously so badly disturbed in the frantic thrashing to find it. He needed all of that and more, to overcome Roger Federer in a breathtaking semifinal of the 2005 Australian Open, and then Lleyton Hewitt in the final, to complete the circle. What made the exhibition of perfection thrilling was that, even as it was being played out, one knew it reeked of mortality that he would uncomplainingly subject himself to the laws of impermanence (at least as uncomplainingly as one can while busting a racquet) once the spectacle was over. “Today I break racquets, for tomorrow we die.”

Whether he won as many Grand Slams, the yardstick by which posterity judges a player, as he ought to have, or if he would have stood a better chance at the events had it not been for his dissipated lifestyle, will be scores on which his claim to true greatness will be questioned. But it also remains to be asked if those were the standards by which he wanted to be appraised. For what was always a tempestuous affair between a moody lover and a demanding love, Safin gave the sport and the ever eager public an honest slice of his life, without admixing the ingredients to accentuate one effect or diminish another.