Saturday, 28 June 2008

Marat Safin

I don't consider myself a tennis fan. I know most of the rules, know the current world #1s. But that's about it. On a fine January morning in 2005, I happened to read an article celebrating the twenty-fifth birthday of (to me) little known Russian tennis player. That player was of course, Marat Safin (And if you didn't see that coming after the post title, YOU'RE A DOLT). I remember being extremely fascinated by this man. I loved the fact that he wore his heart on his sleeve, wasn't afraid to say what he thought. His temper amused me too - he'd break racquets and berate himself in multiple languages... His only stumbling block was his form, which varied as erratically as weather forecasts vary from reality. I decided that I had to see this man play. It was convenient that his birthday, and consequently the article, were around the time of the 2005 Australian open. I saw all of his matches during that Australian open, and was immediately a fan. He defeated Roger Federer in an epic semi-final and the went on to beat the fan favourite Australian Lleyton Hewitt in another fabulous match. I'd finally found a tennis player to support.

It all went downhill from there. Plagued by injury and a lack of self belief, Safin hardly ever made it past the initial rounds of most tournaments after that. I gave up watching tennis too. Roger Federer was too boring and I didn't really like Nadal. Fast forward to a couple of days back, and I see a news article that said that Safin was through to the third round of Wimbledon having beaten Novak Djokovic. That got me excited, I made every attempt to get the time for his third round match. A prolonged search got me a time of 6:30 PM IST, yesterday. But then, one must not forget that Wimbledon is in Great Britain. Thanks to the weather, the match only started around 11 PM IST. To cut a long story short, he won. What excites me is that last night (I stayed up to 2 AM, watching him win) he was the vintage Safin. There was a little bit of everything that makes Marat Safin what he is. There was a racquet thrown, frequent yelling, multiple expressions of disbelief at how he'd been cheated by providence over one shot or the other. Coming up to the what had to be the last game (he only had to hold serve), him leading 7-6, 3-6, 7-6, 5-4, the crowd was going crazy. There was a spectacular Mexican wave that went around Court 1 thrice before he could even start his serve. And then, just to prove that this was of course, the ever erratic Marat Safin, he went on to trail 15-40. Everybody (me included) must have groaned inwardly at this juncture. Could he blow it all? Having done all the hard work, would he stumble now? And he didn't. The crowd went beserk as he took victory from an increasingly panic stricken Andreas Seppi.

Safin is quite the fan favourite. The spectators gathered at court 1 braved chilling weather, seated till after 9 PM local time, to see another Safin epic, and they were rewarded. Safin was gracious enough to sign a multitude of autographs after the gruelling three hour match, and left the court to loud cheers from the spectators. What is it about this Russian that makes him such a favourite with the fans? To be really honest, I think Safin's rollercoaster career appeals to this feeling we all have inside us. The tragedy of unfulfilled genius. Safin embodies that unfulfilled genius. That's why, his win is our win, his loss is our loss, his heartbreak is ours and his jubilation is ours too.

One of the commentators said something about destiny. If ever Safin was supposed to win Wimbledon, it had to be now. Can he win? Of course, when he's mentally fit, it doesn't matter who the opponent is. It just doesn't. He can steamroll the best into submission. Will he? That's another matter altogether, for Marat Safin always plays with a handicap. Only one man is trying to defeat his opponent. Safin. However, two men are trying to defeat Safin. His opponent and - Safin himself. I'm sure there are millions of fans worldwide who'd like to see him overcome himself in the coming days. If he can do that, I truly, from the bottom of my heart feel sorry for his opponents.

Like another commentator said, "It's ridiculous really, that a man of such prodigious talent last won a grand slam at the Australian open three years ago."

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