Even though his on-court career was short, Marat Safin made sure that he left a lasting impression on the game and its followers.
Sometimes Marat Safin made us believe that the more we cared, the less he himself cared. But that would've been harsh. Carrying on despite the struggles with injuries, form and his own temperament in the last few years of his career must mean that he did care.
The Russian arrived in dazzling fashion winning the 2000 US Open. As a 20-year-old with incredible gifts, jaw-dropping looks, ready wit and a wild personality, Safin was irresistible. A lot was expected of him for a reason. His talent wasn't merely artistic or caught up in the aesthetics of the moment. His stroke's gravitas, the soundness of technique, the big serve and surprisingly competent movement for someone that big, meant he was the real deal.
But would it be fair to say he didn't cut it, mentally? How many first-time finalists have managed to ease past Pete Sampras in the final of his home Slam with the serenity of a professional? The Russian's troubles haven't been with nerves on the big stage or with choking. They have been with focus and consistency, despite which he finished with two Grand Slams and a brief stay at the top.
Two Grand Slams would have been a significant achievement for a tennis player if Roger Federer hadn't come along to raise the bar impossibly high. Safin's might have been evaluated as a reasonably successful career if he was less talented. How can someone this talented not finish with more Grand Slams? Was he plain unfortunate like other players of his generation, to have competed at the same time as Pete Sampras and then Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal — great men blessed with more equanimity?
Too much intensity
Safin himself has no career regrets retiring as a 29-year-old. He's seen stupendous highs in his career — the epic 2005 Australian Open semifinal against Federer: a modern-day classic, and Davis Cup wins, to name a few. “I wouldn't change a thing,” he said. “I've lived my life the way I wanted to, whether scaling the mountains, partying long into the night or having fun playing soccer.”
In the last few years, it did appear that the game had changed too much and too quickly for him to make the adjustments. The intense nature of the competition wasn't something he enjoyed, which eventually led to his decision to retire.
“Stress 24/7 — this is what I hated about it, too much. No rest for the brain at all. (In) soccer, hockey, basketball, no matter how you play… you get the money. Here (in tennis), it's all up to this exact moment. If you're doing well, you're gonna make it. If you're not doing well, suck it up and change the lifestyle,” he said. The colourful, irresistible Russian will be missed.