Marat Safin is a class act

This time Marat Safin didn't jilt us. This time he broke racquets, yes, but not his promise, this time he moved us because this man who had lost his way had now found himself. Finally at the Australian Open he was fulfilled, and so were we.



ALWAYS his matches were an adventure, always he involved you in them in some exquisitely personal way and always he brought promise to the court but never quite fulfilled it. He dropped his shorts at the French Open and you'd find a smile. He sat a bevy of blondes in his box and you'd raise an envious eyebrow. He held tormented conversations with himself on court and you'd be left despairing. He'd construct a backhand of such geometric precision and you'd be enveloped in awe.

But in the end mostly you would shrug, as he did, and hang your head, like he had, somehow bewildered that at the end of these brilliant, expressive, emotional journeys a happy ending eluded him. And us.

But this time was different. This time Marat Safin didn't jilt us. This time he broke racquets, yes, but not his promise, this time he moved us because this man who had lost his way had now found himself. Finally at the Australian Open he was fulfilled, and so were we.

The 2000 US Open win, his first and, inexplicably for his talent, only Grand Slam title, occurred so long ago it seemed unreal. After all, for so long he'd sunk so low, he'd retreated to that desolate place in the mind where victory had become a mirage, he'd allowed his self-belief to drip away till he was just this empty, wounded shell. He had become that worst of things, the almost hero.

You don't need to make this up about Marat Safin, he tells you this himself, for no man is as articulate or honest about his life's journey in the press room.

He says people believed that he was a player who could beat anyone and lose to anyone, and then he began to believe it, too, but who admits that these days. He says his US Open win in 2000 was a "mistake", as if he was all fearless youth unready for this triumph, but who confesses that. He says after defeat in two Australian Open finals he began to feel he would never win another Grand Slam title, but who concedes that.

He was an amusing, sensitive man, but carried with him a terrible burden; his body language spoke not so much of failure but of rich talent defeated by an unsure mind. He was compelling and charismatic. But champion? No.

He should have been. He was the youngest No.1 ever in 2000, he'd toyed with Pete Sampras at the US Open, his game dazzled with its hefty completeness. He was a player with gifts he almost did not comprehend.

So what happened? Perhaps it was new coach Peter Lundgren, and Safin admits: "He makes me believe that I can be a good player and I don't have so much doubts about myself." Perhaps it was a long overdue visit from maturity; perhaps he understood, finally, he could not rewind time, that the calendar was being flipped over but he was standing still.

He still threw racquets, but fewer times, just, you know, to release the suffocating pressure. "Sometimes you feeling like it is really eating inside of you, something, and you have to let it go because you cannot handle the pressure." He still articulated his anguish, like he did in the final, shouting at one point: "What can I do?"

He still made you laugh, replying on being asked whether a key Hewitt double fault in the third set was a beautiful sight: "Just I was praying for that. I needed a present because otherwise, you know, like it's too much. It was such a relief for me."

He still drew you to him, standing so forlorn after the Federer match, that interviewer Jim Courier asked, "Do you want a hug?" and he said "yes" and they embraced.

But all the while his game had an unusual control to it, his mind seemed steadier, his purpose more evident. He'd won two Master Series tournaments as last year folded; last year, too, he'd been to the Open final, but consecutive five-setters against Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick had left him exhausted for Federer in the final. But now he did not dither, refused to let his matches turn into some existential discussion, was never pushed for the first five matches to more than four sets. But it would stop now, surely, in the semis, against Federer, whose courtside chair is the equivalent of Superman's phone booth. When he gets out it, you swear he's wearing a cape.

But Safin's game somewhat, on some surfaces, has the measure of the Swiss, where their paths diverged was confidence. Unlike Roddick, the Russian has a flat backhand down the line that is all elegant havoc; unlike Hewitt, his forehand can bring down small buildings and fashion winners from behind the baseline; unlike Agassi, he is not discomforted at the net; unlike Ferrero, he has a serve with an accompanying sonic boom.

Then, to all this, he brought resolve. He carried it into the final, and when he won he had, in two matches, overcome not just tennis' most gifted player, and also its most pugnacious combatant, he had, more importantly, conquered his demons. In public he had fallen, and now before us he had claimed his redemption.

But there is one last thing, as there always is with Safin. And it is something more than tennis, it is his attractive humanness. This is an emotive man, yet after beating Federer, he does not dance on court, or snarl, or pump fists, but stays at the net, quiet, contained, as if suggesting he has not conquered Federer but merely beaten him this one time.

Later, after the final, too, he is all respectful restraint, and it is a moment of wondrous grace. He has shattered Hewitt and his nation's dream, and as the pieces lie at his feet he feels no need to step on them.

Marat Safin is a class act, and now he is champion, too.