`It doesn't give me enough motivation to continue'

The frustrations that permeate Marat Safin's current playing career have increased to such a degree that the self-destruct button is almost constantly being pressed on the court, writes STEVE BIERLEY.

The trials and tribulations of Marat Safin might have detained Leo Tolstoy for only a couple of chapters, but in tennis terms it has been a long-running story that has brought both rapture and intense frustration over the last decade — the tale of a huge talent, capable of hitting undreamed of heights, but one that may ultimately be looked back on as wasted. The Russian has two Grand Slam titles to his name, the 2000 US Open and the 2005 Australian Open. As to whether he can add to these, only Safin knows, and what Safin knows is a dark and locked secret.

Safin lost 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 in the second round of the French Open against Serbia's Janko Tipsarevic, proclaiming in the aftermath of this wretched defeat that: "I'm 27 years old and I'm already going downhill in my career. I was just a little sad today that nothing came together." Winston Churchill described Russia as "a riddle, wrapped inside a mystery, inside an enigma", and the actions of Safin have rarely been any less obscure.

Back in 2000, when he thrashed Pete Sampras at Flushing Meadows, it seemed he was the undisputed future of men's tennis. The champagne corks popped in the immediate aftermath, and Safin's path forward appeared as clear as the vodka that mingled with the fizz. It was never to be that simple.

True, the 6ft 4in Russian has suffered more than his fair share of injuries. However, his most pernicious problem has always been inside his head where any thread of clarity has constantly been shredded by storms of doubt and sundry other disturbances that have seen him frequently teeter on the point of turning his back on the sport that has made him millions. He rages, he mutters, he embarks on baseline soliloquies of swooping emotional highs and lows that have brought to mind Hamlet on speed.

The frustrations that permeate his current playing career have increased to such a degree that the self-destruct button is almost constantly being pressed on the court. He has not won a title since the Australian Open two years ago, and this year his one small success came in Las Vegas, where he reached the last four. "I make one semifinal somewhere in a small tournament and that's it. So it doesn't give me enough motivation to continue. Maybe I don't want to play any more next year, maybe in two years. I don't really know," he said.

Not knowing is Safin's stock in trade, although it still remains possible that one good run, one burst of form to restore his confidence, might yet raise him to his previous heights and resurrect and redeem a career that should have seen him permanently cemented in the top five. To end with a series of matches such as the one against Tipsarevic would indeed be thoroughly dispiriting both for him and his many admirers.


If only Safin had half the resolve of his fellow Russian Maria Sharapova, who opened her French Open campaign with a 6-3, 7-6 win over Emilie Loit of France, he might indeed have ruled the world. Sharapova has nothing like Safin's natural talent, yet her unbending will to win can never be questioned. Clay, where her movement is uncertain, thereby affecting her shot-making, is her least favourite surface, although it would never be enough to send her spiralling into a Safin-like diatribe of self-doubt.

"The French is probably going to be the toughest title for me to win," said Sharapova, the 2004 Wimbledon champion and US Open winner last year. She is still feeling pain from a complicated shoulder injury that has needed cortisone injections, and made some of her serves and overheads appear decidedly awkward. "As long as the doctors give me an OK, as long as I can play through the little aches and pains that I get, then I'm willing to do it." If only Safin had possessed that single-minded determination then he might have won three times as many Slam titles. That said, tennis would not have had so much fun, for out of his frailties has come much rich gallows humour.

� Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007