Final bow for Safin, the hot-head who smashed 700 rackets

From pulling down his shorts on court, to brawling in Moscow – as Marat Safin plays his final tournament, Paul Newman recalls the bizarre career of a former world No 1

As a tournament staged in the opening week of the new year, the Hopman Cup in Perth will be one of the first to notice Marat Safin's absence. The 29-year-old Russian, who is retiring after this week's Masters Series event in Paris, was the centre of attention when he turned up in Australia 10 months ago sporting two black eyes, a legacy of his New Year's Eve celebrations. "I got in trouble in Moscow, but it's OK, I can survive," he told reporters. "I won the fight."

Safin's goodbyes may not have been as prolonged as those of the Rolling Stones, who embarked on a so-called farewell tour as long ago as 1971, but ever since that first appearance of the year in Perth, Safin has been waving nostalgically to crowds. The long goodbye, however, is finally coming to an end for a man who, in the public eye at least, is just as much about rock 'n' roll as about serve and volley.

The Russian almost took his leave at the first opportunity in his farewell tournament. Thierry Ascione, a journeyman Frenchman ranked No 168 in the world, had three match points to win their first-round match last night, but Safin, ever the showman, saved them with three successive aces before grinding out a 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 victory. On this evidence the inevitable will have been delayed by only one match: Safin's next opponent is Juan Martin del Potro, the US Open champion.

There could hardly be a more appropriate place for Safin to bid "adieu" rather than "au revoir". He has won this tournament three times, a feat equalled only by Boris Becker. Having lost to Andre Agassi in the final on his debut in 1999, Safin went one better a year later by beating Mark Philippoussis in a fifth-set tie-break, swept aside Lleyton Hewitt, then the world No 1, in 2002 and Radek Stepanek in 2004.

It was also here in the Palais des Omnisports de Paris-Bercy, in front of Boris Yeltsin, the former Russian president, that Safin won two singles rubbers to put his country on the road to victory over France in the 2002 Davis Cup final.

A bold shot-maker blessed with natural power and athleticism, the former world No 1 was a sight to behold in his heyday, a man who deserved to win more than 15 titles. His popularity, nevertheless, has been as much to do with his character and, to his legions of female admirers, his rugged good looks and imposing physique. At one Australian Open Safin's player box appeared to be full of beautiful blonde women.

Safin draws crowds to tennis courts – the French football team were among the audience last night – in the same way that erupting volcanoes attract geologists. A player who has seemed permanently on the brink of an explosion, Safin estimates that he has trashed 700 rackets in his career, which would suggest that The Who might be a more appropriate comparison than the Rolling Stones.

While he has regularly filled the tennis coffers with fines for all manner of on-court misdemeanours, his behaviour is usually laced with wit or at least a wicked smile. Fans across the city at Roland Garros remember the day in 2004 when he celebrated a spectacular shot by dropping his shorts. "I felt it was a great point for me," he said afterwards. "I felt like pulling my pants down. What's bad about it?"

The fact that last night's victory was only Safin's fourth here since his 2004 victory tells you much about his career. Bedevilled by injuries, the Russian has not won a tournament since he claimed his second Grand Slam title at the 2005 Australian Open, having first announced his arrival as a player of outstanding ability with an extraordinary straight-sets victory over Pete Sampras in 98 minutes in the final of the US Open five years earlier.

"I wish I could have won a lot more tournaments, but I got injured every time I played well," Safin said. "I was making comebacks every single year. That makes it difficult mentally. It causes a lot of stress."

Andy Murray, who lost to Safin in their only meeting four years ago, is among those who will regret his departure. "He was always great for tennis," said Murray, who will play his first match here tomorrow against James Blake. "People enjoyed watching him. He's a different personality to a lot of the players nowadays, I am sure he'll be missed."

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