Marat Safin's game is brilliant, unpredictable and wildly entertaining—like the first week of the French Open
There is no show in tennis like Marat Safin. He's capable of anything: madness, genius, spontaneous striptease. Last week his persona grew so large that it infected the entire French Open. Defending champions, top seeds and every male U.S. player fell victim to a mesmerizing unpredictability. When, last Thursday, Safin celebrated a wondrous point in his two-day, five-set win over Felix Mantilla by yanking down his shorts, it seemed only fitting. "I don't know why," he said. "I felt like pulling my pants down."
On Saturday night against 202nd-ranked Potito Starace, Safin kept his clothes on but displayed all the other qualities that make him impossible to ignore. The 6'4" Russian ripped sterling backhands, tossed second-serve bombs, flicked forehand passes through nonexistent holes. As usual, he also made things harder than necessary: His hands blistered, and the match became a five-set epic. Safin muttered to his racket, bellowed at the sky. By saving a match point, he sent the crowd into a rapturous chant of "Mar-at! Mar-at!" Then, when he took an injury break after saving a second match point, the fans whistled in rage. An hour later Safin thrust a bloodied fist into the air and walked off the winner. He was booed into the night.
Earlier, after an errant forehand, Safin had summed up his career by screaming, "Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?" No other player is so bewildering. The funny, handsome Safin is charming one minute, a bully the next. He admits that his U.S. Open win in 2000 retarded his progress: too much too fast, with nearly $9 million in income since then. Friends struggle to explain him. "He's a masochist," says his agent, Gerard Tsobanian. "He's like a woman," says Anna Kournikova, who first met him in grade school.
Everyone waits for Safin, who was eliminated on Monday by David Nalbandian, to become the champion he was meant to be. But it may be too late. "This is the way I am," he said. "I can't do anything about it." He could be an all-time great, but he's a slave to paradox. Safin loves himself too much, and not nearly enough.
Al Jazeera at Roland Garros
Move over, ESPN: Last week the new Al Jazeera Sports Channel beamed up to eight hours of daily French Open coverage to North Africa and the Middle East, including Iraq. Unlike its controversial news partner, though, Al Jazeera Sports vows to avoid politics. It didn't even shield its Muslim viewers from Serena Williams's pink hot pants. "But we don't do beach volleyball women," said the network's Ivan Blum. "It's too much." There's one other line Al Jazeera Sports won't cross. With all the footage on "the other channel" of Israeli troops battling Palestinians, said producer Faris Zaki, to show Israeli players—Harel Levy, Anna Smashnova-Pistolesi—would be "painful. Everyone will be against us."