I have a particular picture of Marat Safin, captured when I was roaming the grounds at Melbourne Park one year, during the final round of qualifying. It might have been 2002, or 2003. I’m pretty sure it was 2002.
It was mid afternoon, and it was hot. I’d discovered my limit for watching the Bogomolov Jnrs and Christoph Rochuses toil across the outer, as well as one relentless flag-waving American fan, bellowing facile exhortations at Justin Gimelstob or some other late-career also-ran. The others in attendance – a typically heinous mixture of Dads towing sons and leathery, lank-haired Latin coaching sundries – emphatically declined to get caught up in it. There was zero atmosphere. I took myself off for a stroll.
Wayne Arthurs was serving on a mostly empty Show Court 2, with his paid help torpidly nodding. Whatever Arthurs was doing, they were agreeing with it. Really, what more could anyone possibly bring to that flawless motion? Why was Arthurs even practicing it? Shouldn’t he be working on his returns? I idled there a few minutes, during which time every single delivery curved into precisely the same spot. There is a perfection to the Arthurs serve, but watching it only remains interesting until you’re certain he can do it every time. He can, so I moved on.
Next door is what used to be called Show Court 1, but is now Margaret Court Arena, the inspiration of some genius with a tremendous sense of humour, or none. It was there that I discovered Safin. He was unbuttoned, in several senses of the word. His shirt was off, he was ripped, and he was ripping groundstrokes with tremendous force. He was good at that. He seemed calm.
Looking back, I kind of wish I’d had the wherewithal and prescience to let know him how the rest of the decade would pan out, how the peaks would be few though lofty, and the valleys broad and deep as chasms. It is precisely the kind of metaphor that would have seemed pointless to him. It was January 2002 – I’m sure of it now – and his slump extending back to the Paris Masters of 2000 was still widely blamed on injury. We were two weeks away from the truth. With an entourage supplied by Hugh Heffner from old Playboy Mansion floorstock, Safin would stride to the Australian Open final over the rubble of a broken draw, there to fold tamely and depressingly to Swedish journeyman Thomas Johansson. From that point on, the main thing to know about the giant Russian was just how spectacularly fallible he was.
But back to the picture. Safin was pounding the ball relentlessly from both wings, maybe 20 shots in a row between errors. I lurked amongst the shaded upper seats, just another curious fan, and perhaps less interested than the three teenage girls twittering (like birds; not tweeting) off to my left. He was working hard, but not as hard as his hitting partner, whom I didn’t recognise. Suddenly he rushed forward to pounce on a short ball, slamming one of those patented hop-backhands up the line. His opponent reflexed it back, and Safin casually netted the easiest of volleys, the way most pros tend to in practice. Safin, who’d just belted a good match’s worth of prime groundies without hesitation or effort or thought, let out a bellow of purest frustration. It’s not like he’d been working on his volleys, and he’d certainly made no great effort at the one he’d stuffed up.
The girls giggled, nervously. To them he was just a dreamy hunk, made hunkier by fame and dreamier by an accent. Large men with their shirts off were precisely the reason they were at Qualifying in the first place. His roar was only the latest and loudest of dozens they’d heard that day, tiny frustrated punctuations in a hundred aspiring and expiring careers, being played out for bored and smattered applause. (It’s free to attend Qualifying, but for most that’s not enough reason to go.)
But that’s not what Safin’s roar was. Honestly, I don’t know what it was, as tempting as an easy interpretation is. The veritable Sisyphus of modern tennis, he of course invites interpretation. After he’d belted the offending ball into the net with baleful petulance, he stalked off to the side, away from his coaches, towards me. There he stopped, peering blankly, and I had the feeling that the purpose of the roar had been to purge his mind of thought. For some years I looked at it this way, but I no longer do. It was just a moment, just a yell at no one. He missed a volley. The shadow from one of the awnings above the Margaret Court Arena Stadium slashed his sweat-streaked torso, neatly cutting it in two.
Some years later, apropos of nothing much, I thought about this moment, this image, and the idea came to me that Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt are two halves of the greatest tennis player that never lived. That’s not a pleasant picture, but my one of Safin brooding vacantly away from his coach is. I sums up something essential about his character, and I still don’t know what. I really wish I’d had a camera.