Marat Safin: Hothead who cooled down

Known more for his tantrums than titles, Marat Safin tells Paul Newman how he regrets those excesses

Like a death-bed repentant, Marat Safin would like two things to be known before he departs this tennis life. First, he is grateful to the Association of Tennis Professionals, whose bank balance would no doubt look far less healthy but for the many fines he has paid over the years, for "all the help they gave given me". Secondly, he has no problem with umpires and thinks they have no problem with him. "People understand," Safin says.

What everyone in tennis understands is that the sport will be a less interesting world without the 29-year-old Russian, who is retiring at the end of the year. Safin has been one of the game's biggest draws, even if he has spent most of the last nine injury-troubled years struggling to live up to the golden fortnight in the late summer of 2000, when he blasted Pete Sampras off court – the American was unbeaten in his previous eight Grand Slam finals – to win the US Open at the age of 20.

Some of that interest in Safin, of course, is similar to that of rallying enthusiasts who seek out the most dangerous bend in the forest. He has always been a car crash waiting to happen, a time bomb ready to explode. He has kept racket companies in business – he reckons he smashes about 50 rackets a year – and there is barely an umpire alive who has not been poisoned by the venom from his tongue.

"I've had good times and bad times," Safin says as he reflected on his career. "That's me. That's how I am. I'm really lucky and I'm happy that the ATP have allowed me to do what I want to do on the court. They've been nice to me throughout the years and that's made it much easier for me to play this way. If they had been really strict I would have paid so many fines. I really appreciate the help they've given me."

How does he see his relationship with umpires? "A lot of people probably get pissed off with me, but they have their job and I have mine. It's not like any of us are doing this for free. Of course there are occasions when you go over the limit, but that's part of the game. And I'm pretty sure that referees in soccer hear far worse things.

"I behaved terribly a couple of times, but people understand. It's never been a case of me getting angry with anybody. It was a case of getting angry with myself. I might have had a different point of view with a few umpires, but after the match everything is finished. I argued with an umpire recently and apologised to him afterwards. He said: 'I understand, I understand.' It was just in the heat of the moment during the match. Afterwards everything was cool."

Did he throw rackets as a teenager? "I did, but my parents weren't really happy about it. I was very competitive. I hated losing. No matter what, I had to win."

If there is a hint of weariness in his voice it is no surprise. Ever since Safin revealed his retirement plans at the start of the year, almost every press conference – and probably every interview – has featured the same questions, which will no doubt be repeated when Wimbledon starts in nine days' time. Why is he retiring? What will he do after tennis? Does he think he has underachieved?

For the most part he answers with good grace, though when you ask the last one you sense that another racket might have been heading for the wheelie-bin if any had been at hand. "You can say that anyone should have won more," Safin says. "Federer, Sampras, Agassi, Rios, Krajicek, Kafelnikov, Ivanisevic – you could say that all of them should have won more, but this is tennis, this is sport. You cannot take all the chances you get. It's not as easy as it might look."

Safin won one more Grand Slam title, at the 2005 Australian Open, when he overcame Roger Federer 9-7 in the fifth set of one of the best matches of modern times before beating Lleyton Hewitt in the final. It was his last tournament victory. Safin made two other finals in Melbourne and helped Russia to win two Davis Cups, but his tally of 15 titles is a comparatively meagre return for a former world No 1 in his 11th year on the professional circuit.

Until his run to last year's semi-finals, Safin's best showing at Wimbledon had been a solitary quarter-final appearance in 2001. He remembers how he lost his first match at the All England Club to Andrei Medvedev 11 years ago. "It was a weird feeling, a weird sensation," Safin says. "I didn't like the feeling of playing on grass. I felt like I was going to fall over the whole time. And that feeling stuck with me for a long time, because I wasn't comfortable moving around. I felt I couldn't play, I couldn't run, I couldn't do anything on grass."

Safin contends that he would have achieved much more had it not been for injuries, the latest of which – a back problem – kept him out of this week's Aegon Championships at Queen's Club. "I wish I could have won a lot more tournaments, but I got injured every time I played well," he says. "I was making comebacks every single year. That makes it difficult mentally. It causes a lot of stress. It's not a lot of fun.

"The knee injury I suffered in 2005 has ruined my last four years. It was eight months before I could start walking normally. I was limping and the doctor said to me: 'It will be a miracle if you play again.' He said the last resort would be an operation, but that might have left me with a limp for the rest of my life. I decided not to take the chance and I'm lucky now that I'm not limping any more."

Should he have been like his sister, Dinara, who trains ferociously hard? "She loves to work. I just don't believe that you need to go out there and work for eight hours. But if you love doing that, why not? But is Federer going to go out there and work 10 hours every day? I think it's too much. I think you need to spend some of your time doing things other than hitting tennis balls over a net."

A poll of readers by the TennisReporters website recently voted Safin, along with Ana Ivanovic, as the game's "Sexiest Player of the Year" for the fourth time in a row. He contends that for the most part a player's life is extremely tedious but admits that "sometimes we can get out and have some fun".

Two years ago Safin was so disenchanted with tennis that he abandoned the tour in order to join a Himalayan expedition climbing Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain on the planet. He now talks mysteriously about "a few projects" he is considering on retirement, though he rules out commentating and coaching. "Life is waiting for me after tennis," he says with a smile. In Paris last month a reporter said he had heard that Safin wanted to paint. "You're crazy," Safin says. "I'd rather play tennis than be a painter. Trust me."

A smashing time: Marat's moments of madness

May 2004, French Open

Safin was docked a point against Felix Mantilla after pulling down his shorts to celebrate winning a vital point. "It just happened," he said afterwards. "I felt it was a great point for me and I felt like pulling my pants down. Nobody complained. I thought it was entertaining and I was trying to make the game fun. I'm working my arse off on court, it's a full stadium, the crowd are behind me. There are officials who are trying to destroy the sport. It's going down the drain."

June 2004, Wimbledon

The former Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, came to watch Safin play on No 2 Court, but he still smashed his racket and swore at the umpire during his defeat by Dmitry Tursunov. "I give up on Wimbledon," Safin said after the match. "This is definitely not the tournament for me. I give up spending time on these courts. I give up on practising before the tournament, just to prepare myself for better results. I hate it."

July 2008, Wimbledon

Safin's best run at SW19 ended in a semi-final defeat to Roger Federer. He threw his racket on the grass and then hurled it with all his strength against a chair, earning a warning for racket abuse. Safin once said that it was reasonable to break a racket or to smash a chair, but "you can't destroy a racket and a chair in the same match, as there has to be a limit – otherwise this is the tennis of a sick person".

January 2009, Perth

Safin arrived in Australia sporting two black eyes after celebrating the new year in Russia. He saw the tournament doctor on arrival and asked for his first match to be delayed. "I won the fight, I'm good, I'm OK," he said. "I got in trouble in Moscow but it's OK, I can survive. It's just a small problem. I wasn't in the right place at the right time."

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