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Wednesday, November 11, 2009
An underachiever, but Safin will be missed

Oh, the irony.

Here's the supremely talented Marat Safin calling it quits in Paris at 29, the same age the supremely talented Andre Agassi began his renaissance by overcoming a two-set deficit in the 1999 French Open final. Indeed, Agassi claimed five of his eight majors from 29 onward.

Agassi, as is made crystal (oops) clear in his controversial, and riveting, autobiography, hated tennis, thrust upon him by his bullying dad. However, near the watershed age of 30, he realized tennis was his job, the only thing he knew how to do, and intended on maximizing what he had left.

If Safin never hated tennis, you get the feeling he didn't like it that much.

Nah, racking up Grand Slam crowns a la Pete and Roger was never his thing. Partying, stacking blondes in his box and eschewing the practice required to dominate the sport was more like it, much to the chagrin of his past coaches.

There was no turning point.

Who knows what might have happened if thinker Darren Cahill guided Safin, as was the plan, instead of Agassi, early this decade. Would Cahill have changed Safin, beefed up his weakness, the forehand? Look at the Federer backhand. Once a chink in the armour, it's now one of the best around. He put in the time. To his credit, Safin boosted his net play over the years and turned into a good volleyer, knowing when to come in.

Safin's still-shaky forehand was on display Wednesday against Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro, another big guy who emulated the Russian by winning the U.S. Open as a 20-year-old and knocking off a tennis legend in the finale.

Even though Safin dipped alarmingly in recent seasons, fittingly del Potro ended up as his last foe.

Safin did save one match point with an off-forehand, although it wasn't cleanly struck. Later, he willed a forehand down the line to stay in, and when it did, he raised his arms in celebration. He hoped the ball would land in, rather than believing it.

Safin smashed hundreds of rackets, jawed at chair umpires and many a fan loved witnessing his frustration boil over. Yet had Safin reined in his temper, like Federer, he probably wins more than two majors, despite the other flaws.

More disappointing than the haul of majors, perhaps, is that Safin reached only six Grand Slam semifinals post the 2000 U.S. Open. A wrist injury in 2003 accounted for a small part of the drought, but come on, six? At the French Open, the one he really wanted, it happened once.

Safin, up front as ever, admitted to playing out 2009 for the cash. Thus, it's little surprise a 19-22 record and four exits prior to the fourth round in the majors resulted. Seeing the finish line, he picked it up in the last month, improving his ranking to 65th. No wonder he won the Paris Masters three times -- the year comes to an end, and he figures, "Let's put in a little extra and finish up strong."

His best times were too few. The time he dismantled Pete Sampras in a lightning quick 1 hour, 38 minutes at Flushing Meadows, prompting the vanquished, who'd won eight matches in Grand Slam finals, to say at the time: "He serves harder than I did at 19. He's going to win many majors."

Fast forward five years -- quite the gap -- and Safin dethrones Federer at the Australian Open in one of the best encounters of the decade, fending off a match point by charging forward like a bull before sending a lob inside the baseline.

His one-liners and charisma are almost unmatched in the tennis world, so he'll be missed -- big time. As an eclectic cast, including Novak Djokovic, Portuguese journeyman Frederico Gil, and the retired duo of Marc Rosset and Younes El Aynaoui gathered round Safin for a postmatch farewell Wednesday, I fretted his impending absence.

Still, he should have given us much more.