December 8, 2008

There's Something About Marat

Marat Safin is not my favorite tennis player.

I might have mentioned that I'm not one to forgive easily, and his defeat of Pete Sampras at the 2000 U.S. Open is one I'll never quite accept. The fact that he also turned out to be something of a hot-head didn't exactly argue in his favor either. One of the louder men on the tour, he routinely grunts his frustrations, argues with chair umpires and cheers his victories.

Over the years Safin has certainly proven he's someone to watch. Despite my (internal) protests, the then-twenty year old Russian rode the momentum from his first Grand Slam win eight years ago and climbed to a #1 ranking in 2001. It turned out, though, that his success was short-lived. In a particularly startling fall from grace, he ended the year at #11 despite two late-season titles.

Marat has had a bit of a roller coaster ride in his career since then. He climbed back to #2 the next year but fell to #77 in 2003, up to #4, down to #104, twenty-two to ninety-one, and is now ranked twenty-ninth, surprisingly high considering he ended the year with two early-round exits.

The thing is, Marat always has a way of surprising you -- seemingly doing his best just when you start to forget about him. He hadn't had the most successful start to this year, only making it to the third round in two tournaments before Wimbledon. But at the All England Club, he took out Novak Djokovic and then-#9 Stanislas Wawrinka on his way to the semis. Though he lost in straight sets to Roger Federer, he cut his ranking from #75 to #40.

His success didn't last long -- in subsequent tournaments he suffered losses to Italians Potito Starace and Fabio Fognini and Germans Denis Gremelmayr and Philipp Petzschner, none of whom were ranked in the top fifty.

Marat saw his best chance for redemption in years when he went home to Moscow in October. It wasn't the toughest tournament of the year -- Nikolay Davydenko was the top seed, followed by Igor Andreev. Even Marat drew the seventh place. But Safin did pull out a win over the eventual runner-up in Shanghai and made it to his first final since 2006.

He lost to Igor Kunitsyn, who took home his first title that day.

Even given his struggles it's hard to believe that Marat hasn't won a single title since 2005's Australian Open, especialy given that he won seven championships in 2000. Yet he continues to plug away at the tour.

Is it time to give up? Perhaps. He's won 400 matches in his career -- seventh highest among active players. But after a first round loss in Paris in October, Marat started to discuss retirement, saying at the very least he needs a long break before deciding whether to return.

Maybe well see him again in 2009 -- maybe, at twenty-eight, he's headed for the old folks' home.

Whatever he decides, you can be sure he'll make you hear about it.

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