Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Tennis Fan's Tennis Player

Last night the match of the tournament in the men's singles was played at the Australian Open. Roger Federer and Marat Safin played a third round match, and Federer won in three sets, 6-3, 6-2, 7-6.

The score line disguises the closeness of the match, and treats Safin with some disservice, for the nerves Federer showed in the third set tie break highlighted that he knows, as well as anyone, that a win against Safin is never a given, even if he is no longer at his peak.

After the match, Safin, in his press conference stated that it would he his last time at the Australian Open. Such an announcement is a big loss to tennis.

The reason why it is such a loss was highlighted in last night's match. It was a match full of expectation, and though the scoreline did not live up to it, the tennis certainly did. Federer and Safin traded blows from the back of the court, used deft volleys, deadly serves, and insanely gifted "you can't be serious" shots from unwinnable positions that resulted in winners.

It was a match that tennis lovers the world over would have delighted in watching, and it is sad that it may be the last time we see these two go head-to-head in a best of 5 sets.

Safin and Federer for the most part of this decade have been the two most gifted tennis players. The two players with whom commentators would use the adjective "genius" - most likely with Safin also using the word "flawed" or "tortured".

Nadal is amazing - easily the best clay court player ever. But he does it with power and strength. Safin and Federer have that x factor that just puts them in a different category. Maybe it's a certain grace around the court; more likely it's that ability to see the angles that others cannot; the courage to try the impossible because of a self belief that nothing is impossible for them.

Safin only won two Grand Slams - the 2000 US Open and the 2005 Australian Open. He was only 20 when he slaughtered Pete Sampras to win the 2000 US crown, and that he was only able to win one more is a perfect case of underachieving, bad luck, and injuries.

But there is little point bemoaning what might have been - for 2 Grand Slams is still pretty bloody good. More importantly throughout his entire career you have been able to say of Safin, "if he's at his best, he's better than anyone". It's why last night's match was so anticipated - with Safin anything is possible. It's why Federer was so glad to win the tie break - he knew if Safin wins one set, he might catch fire, and then it's hold onto your hats time.

Last night Safin played an incredible cross court drop volley off of a stinging Federer forehand. Safin was not in the perfect position, but his shot was perfect... or nearly so. It was called out, and the replay showed it was so by only a few millimeters. It would be tempting to call it a symbolic shot of his entire career.

Since he became number one, I think Federer has only worried about three players - Leyton Hewitt (who won the first of 7 matches against Roger), Nadal and Safin.

Last year Federer seemed annoyed about losing to Djokovic in the semi finals - as though Djokovic wasn't worthy, and that Federer had a feeling it was more to do with his own ability than Djokovic. Whereas when he loses to Nadal and Safin (and Hewitt when he was at his best) he knows the other player is a deserved winner (not to say that Federer is a poor loser against others). And I have to say I feel the same way. Last year Federer just played badly against Djokivic - shots he normally hits for winners, were missing, or were being hit too short. But when you think of Federer losing to Safin or Nadal, most times you have seen Federer playing sparkling tennis (think last year's Wimbledon final or the 2005 Australian Open semi), and getting beaten as opposed to beating himself.

So with Safin's departure tennis loses something very special - a player who brought out the best in Federer, and who always kept you thinking that today might be the day we see the impossible. And while he didn't always succeed, you know he would always attempt it.

And tennis also loses a great role model of the game. He was no thug; no arrogant boor - despite his many broken racquets. In his press conferences he comes across as intelligent and respectful of other players. He also had a personality that made watching him play so much fun. You knew any moment he might either explode and play great tennis, or just explode.

Here's what he said after his loss last night:

Q. What memories will you take away from this tournament?

MARAT SAFIN: I had some ups and downs here. One disappointment. Another great year. One final against Roger. And then one title I took here beating also Roger and Hewitt. So I've been playing some great tennis. So just the whole thing, the whole setup. The beautiful city, great people.
The crowd is always friendly. Go around in the city and they just love tennis. They live with tennis. They really enjoy it and appreciate what you are doing. That's what makes it special. It's really very sports‑people living here. It's always nice to come here every year, year after year. Unfortunately, I doubt it's going to ever happen again.

Q. That semifinal you played against Federer in 2005, people still talk about that as one of the great matches. How does that stick in your mind in terms of your career?

MARAT SAFIN: Well, just it was one of the greatest matches I ever played in my life probably. It's just for the fact that to play against Federer, against Roger, because he's the kind of player for my tennis, he's not really comfortable. He is not really comfortable tennis game for me.
I always struggled to play against him because he just doesn't give me any rhythm. He knows what to do in exact moment of the match. He knows what I'm going to do.
For me, to win that match in a semifinal was a huge thing. I never played any better. I wasn't any luckier in any other moments in the tennis court, so I could say that I was lucky; I played great tennis. He missed couple of shots that could change the match. He was very close to win it. He had a match point.

Q. You embraced Roger at the end. Was that partly because of what's happened at the tournament, or because you knew you were saying good‑bye as well?

MARAT SAFIN: Well, it's just we know each other for how many years? Since '94. We didn't play in the juniors, but we saw each other. We had some great matches. I was close a couple times. We grew up together. He started a little bit later than me.
I respect him as a tennis player, as a person. He's just very close ‑‑ let's put it this way: Very close colleague of mine.

Q. You also say he's the best you ever faced?

MARAT SAFIN: Probably, yeah. He's the most complete tennis player in the history of tennis, that's for sure. With all due respects to Agassi and Sampras and the rest of the gang.
But I never felt so uncomfortable against any of the players before.

Q. What would it take to change your mind about walking away from tennis?

MARAT SAFIN: Nothing. I've been already too many years. I want to change and do something else. I'm ready for that. It's been a nice trip. It's enough.

Q. Do you know what that something else is?

MARAT SAFIN: Yeah, but I'll keep it to myself for the moment. I would love to do that. I'm ready.

Sounds pretty content; and so should tennis lovers be as well. It was a nice trip he gave us.

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