Rising and Falling Stars
September 2, 2009 -- Fabrice Santoro and Marat Safin played what they said is their last U. S. Open matches today, bringing to a close two brilliant tennis careers.
Safin a one-time U. S. Open singles champion will forever be remembered for his stellar tennis skills, his moods that rose and fell with the wind, and the bevy of beautiful women that sat courtside in his player's box.
He reached the top of the Singles South African Airways ATP Ranking in late November 2000. It was the year he wowed the tennis world by defeating Pete Sampras on Arthur Ashe stadium in an impressive straight set victory. Asked how he pulled it off the next evening on The David Letterman Show, Safin shrugged his shoulders and said, "I don't know."
"This match was a miracle for me," Safin said, after his defeat today. "I didn't expect anything from this year, because I started at 25 [rank], dropped to 45, and then like in three months I was No. 1 in the world. I beat here Sampras and really didn't believe I could get anywhere closer to the final of a Grand Slam."
But he did, at The Australian Open in 2005, upsetting Roger Federer in the semifinals when he prevailed 9-7 in the fifth set. Safin defeated Australia's own Lleyton Hewitt in the final to win his second major. It was to be his last Grand Slam title.
Safin's serve was sublime. His groundstrokes were compact with power. His backhand was lethal. But facing opponents that flummoxed him, he could and did implode in a style cherished by some fans and dreaded by others. He was known for smashed racquets, tirades and spirited interchanges with many of the chair umpires he came to know in his 12-year career with the ATP Tour.
"I don't regret anything at all," Safin said. "Things that happened to me throughout the life, whatever I said, whatever I did it took me where I am right now. So, I think it was pretty nice ride."
Ironically, Fabrice Santoro was one player he never wanted to face. Nicknamed "The Magician" by Pete Sampras, the Frenchman Santoro provoked Safin like no other player could. Santoro used two hands off both sides and was anything but conventional. He frustrated Safin's powerful baseline game with wiggy-wobbly balls, slice and dice approach shots, and drop shots that caught the six-four Russian at the baseline. Safin would scream at Santoro, as the Frenchman walked back to the baseline to serve, a wry smile on his face.
"The way I play tennis was just a lot of very fun for me," Santoro said. "It's unusual to play this way. I quickly understand that my style was different. And because of my different style, every match was a position on the court."
Marat Safin was much more than his alter ego. In 2000, just three years after turning pro, he became the youngest player to finish number two since 19-year-old Boris Becker in 1986. Safin accumulated seven titles that same year, the youngest player to achieve such a record since Mats Wilander won nine in 1983.
He has ended his career with 15 singles titles and twelve runner-up wins.
One of the earliest memories of Safin in the United States was in a Davis Cup Tie at Stone Mountain Park, Atlanta, Georgia. In was April 1998, the year he was named ATP Newcomer of The Year. Andre Agassi gave Safin his first taste of the weekend competition, defeating the 18-year-old in straight sets. It brought the two mighty nations to 1 rubber each. The U. S. team won doubles, making it 2-1. Yevgeny Kafelnikov then took out Agassi, in one of his rare losses. At 2-2, Safin took to court against Jim Courier to decide the tie. Courier had never lost a singles match in Davis Cup, at this point.
Safin rolled over Courier at love in the first set, but Courier is nothing less than tenacious and took the second. Marat came back in the third, to go up two sets to one. Courier knew then that he was about to lose at the hands of a relative unknown, so he consulted Captain Tim Gullikson. The strategy was: give the guy junk. Courier threw Safin so far off rhythm that he had nothing to fall back on. He ran around the court chasing balls like a puppy. Courier won the last two sets, and the tie for the U.S.
For Safin, though, the fire has gone from his belly. He cannot win consistently. He has had enough of the road.
"I have been doing for a long time, and I've been kind of struggling for some time," Marat said. "It's just a new stage in my life. Basically, I'm retiring so my head is already in afterwards tennis rather than here."
Fabrice Santoro spoke about retirement as early as 2008, but probably had notions about it beforehand. He wanted to sleep in his own bed, play with his children, and spend time with his wife. But his love of the game kept his engines tuned.
"I love my sport," Santoro said. "I did it in this life for so many years. I was so happy to be on the court. You can't do it if you're not completely in love with your sport. Can you do it for two, five, eight years maybe, but not twenty-one."
He will leave center court with 6 career titles in singles and 24 career titles in doubles. He never won a Grand Slam in singles, but did in men's doubles and mixed doubles. With his partner Michael Llodra they won the Australian Open in 2003 and 2004. With his partner Daniela Hantuchova they won Roland Garros in 2005 and 2006.
He will be remember more for his doubles than singles, but it was on the singles court where fans could witness his sensational style, which will never be duplicated. He was a finesse player, not a power player as many are these days. The contrast in strategies and styles was stark, but his fellow touring pros respected Santoro's game and his sneaky ability to surprise and evade.
"But for sure it's good to play my style," Santoro said. "I think people would maybe like to see more players like this. But if I was able to play like Federer, believe me, I would do it. You just have to do the best you can do to win matches and to be competitive on tour."
Fabrice Santoro was born in Tahiti, a little known fact. He began playing tennis at the age of six.
"Thirty years later, I'm going to quit," Santoro said. "During thirty years, every morning I was having my bag, put the shoes in the bag, your racquet you're strings. You go to practice and you play some tournaments. You travel; you win matches, you lose some. You go to the hotels. Now I want to be at home. I want to see my friends. I want to live a normal life."
Both men will have years to figure out what a 'normal' life is for them.
Letting go of two champions like Marat Safin and Fabrice Santoro will not be easy for fans thrilled by their athleticism, tennis, and personalities. We were all lucky to have been alive as they swung away at millions of tennis balls, over their careers. We are lucky to have such a great sport.