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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Exit Strategy: Q&A With Marat Safin

Though at times this year his play has been underwhelming, the ever enigmatic and entertaining Marat Safin has been able to use his 2009 campaign as an opportunity to say goodbye to the world of professional tennis. We sat down with the two-time major champ the day before the start of this year’s U.S. Open, where Safin, the 2000 titlist, lost in the first round. Safin, 29, held forth on topics ranging from the tour, his career, his ego, the mountains, religion, marriage, children—everything except kickboxing. Here’s part one of the interview; check back tomorrow, October 22, for part two.
What did you want from your last season?Marat Safin: First of all, you need to enjoy because it's been 12 years on tour. Some people they continue playing more than 12 years, they like it so much. I just realized that it was starting to get tougher and tougher, all the things, to travel and to play and to practice, and having matches and to travel again. It got too heavy for me, so I decided to move on to something different, something else. I think it's the right decision and I don't regret anything. Just to enjoy the last year, nice atmosphere around the courts, not to forget this feeling.
Has the farewell tour been what you expected, then?MS: I thought it would be a little bit slightly different, all these feelings toward the tournaments. It's a little bit different, different from what I thought—it's difficult to explain. The feeling that I thought I would get from coming back for the last time to the tournaments, I don't get this particular feeling that I was hoping to get. But of course it's nice, it's nice to know that it's over—last time [at the U.S. Open], last time in L.A., last time in Cincinnati—just enjoy it. I don't want to have any more stress.
Everyone knows Safin the pro. Not as many people know where you came from. How would you describe it?MS: [I] started from zero, from scratch, no money—not a beautiful story coming from the Soviet Union that had been stuck for 70 years with communism. There was no cash, nothing to play with, no racquets, no balls, it was terrible and not really simple to break through. I was lucky that some of the sponsors appeared in Moscow, they were trying to break into the Russian market. They just took care of me without any questions, they just gave me the money and hoped for a breakthrough.
Your mother started you in tennis. Was there a lot of pressure on you?MS: There was no pressure, how can you have pressure? To get better at what? There is no chance to break through anywhere. No one believed in something, that [we] would end up playing tournaments and winning the Grand Slam—nobody even thought about it, not even close. In the 90s we broke the wall, so basically the first trips to normal, decent countries was in the 90s. How do you expect someone who saw maybe Wimbledon 30 minutes a day would be here?
Was the 1998 French Open a big moment for you? [Safin made the fourth round as an 18-year-old.] Was that a point when you realized you could go places?MS: I realized a little bit earlier, when I became Top 200 after three months. I'd been traveling on the Challengers, which was something new. I was stuck in the satellites. My sponsor dropped me. So actually I got some money from IMG, they supported me for three or four months. I was ranked 460 in the world and then I ended up the year Top 200. So then I realized I had some game, I just need to develop it, and I need to work on it and I can manage to get somewhere near Top 100 and then we will see. But I never expected to be Top 50 at all.
What happened when you got there?MS: Appetite comes with food. When you are Top 50, you want to see what will be the next step. I'd like to get Top 40, Top 30, closer, closer. You realize that you're a pretty good tennis player and you just hang in there and see how long you're going to stay there.
Was your 2000 U.S. Open victory over Pete Sampras a curse as much as a blessing?MS: It was unexpected for me in the first place, because I didn't think that I would get close to the finals, and to go to the finals and beat Sampras on his home ground—I don't think so. And then I ended up in the situation where I was fighting for No. 1 in the world and I made it. I was kind of struggling—you know, what's next? I won a Grand Slam, I ended up No. 1 in the world, I never in my life would have dreamed about it and I made it. I was like, '"Game over." I achieved everything I wanted, what's next?' It's difficult when you're 20 years old to understand what you want and what you're aiming at. And also it was a problem that there wasn’t a real person who could guide me. I was guessing; I was a little bit stubborn. But anyway, for good or for bad, I did what I did, and I don't really actually regret. I probably would approach the situation slightly different [now], but that's okay. I would never exchange my life for anybody else's life. I'm grateful and I'm lucky and I'm blessed for the experiences I had throughout my life, and I would never, ever change my life.
Tom Perrotta is a senior editor at TENNIS.

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