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."

Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral