Marat Safin is poised to dominate In the 12th century, a group of Tatars on the Mongolian steppes poisoned the father of 9-year-old Temujin, thereby discovering the hard way that the boy, who would later be known to the world as Genghis Khan, had a wicked temper. His retaliation, though lacking in swiftness, was thorough, resulting in the near complete annihilation of the Tatar people. Survivors of the rout were thusly folded into the population of their Mongolian conquerors.
When you discover that tennis player Marat Safin is, in fact, a descendant of those Mongolian tribes and their Tatar spoils, his own temper seems quite under control by comparison. Sure, he broke 48 racquets - more than one per tournament - during his first year on the ATP Tour. But at least when Safin dismantles an opponent, he typically limits his spoils to a tournament trophy rather than killing his challenger"s family, burning and looting the stadium and taxing the spectators. The similarities between Safin and his marauding ancestors (collectively referred to as "Tatars" despite that tribe"s near extermination by Genghis Khan and his Mongolian army) don"t end there. Known as the Golden Horde because of the gorgeous tents they erected, Tatars, who adopted Islam as their religion in the 14th century, soon dominated nearly all of Russia, Ukraine and Siberia (this period in history is commonly referred to as the "Tatar Yoke"). Likewise, it"s predicted by many that 22-year-old Safin, whose own Golden Horde comprises a bevy of model types who act as his entourage, will dominate the men"s tennis circuit before his career is over. Send your parents to hell Legend has it, Genghis Khan was born holding a large blood clot in his hand, thus, according to local custom, foretelling his future vocation as World Conqueror/Emperor of All Men/Scourge of God, esq. Marat Safin, on the other hand, entered this world holding a tennis racquet (in a manner of speaking), presaging his own career goals. Safin"s mother, Rauza, was herself a former top 10 Russian tennis player; his father, Mikhail, a former decathlete, managed Moscow"s Spartak tennis club, one of only a handful of serious tennis clubs in the Soviet bloc. Indeed, it was Rauza who taught 3-year-old Marat to play tennis, and who coached him until age 13, when Safin fomented a rebellion all his own. "There comes a moment," Safin once noted in an interview for a Russian journal, "when you simply start sending [your parents] to hell in your mind." He later explained, "My mother was great, she did a great job. But the last year Ö I started to shout at her, I didn"t respect her and I didn"t treat her like a coach." And so, like Genghis Khan, who was, according to custom, sent to live in the tent of his future inlaws, Safin migrated to Valencia, Spain, where he trained under Spanish coach Rafael Mensua. "It was hard, very hard," Safin recalls. "I did not know anyone and could not speak the language. But it taught me many things." After four years with Mensua in Spain, Safin erupted on the ATP tour in 1998, ousting both Andre Agassi and Gustavo Kuerten from the field of Roland Garros in 1998 before falling to Cedric Pioline in the fourth round. Later that year, he reached the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open, falling to the great one himself, Pete Sampras. Safin finished the year ranked 49th in the world, the youngest player (he was 19) ever to crack the tour"s top 50. It wasn"t until Safin pummeled Pete Sampras 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in the 2000 U.S. Open, however, that his true potential was recognized (after which, to the delight of the press corps, Safin cracked open an entire crate of chilled Stoli). After that drubbing, a shell-shocked Sampras predicted a long period of domination by Safin. "He can be No. 1 for many, many years to come," Sampras posited. "Together with Lleyton Hewitt, he is the future. It all depends on how much he wants to do it." Of his U.S. Open victory, Safin"s sometime coach (and former tennis champion) Mats Wilander noted recently, "He proved that mentally he is all there. He has it." But (and, in the immortal words of Pee Wee Herman, "Everyone always has a big but Ö"), Wilander continues, "It"s just that sometimes he takes his eye off it." Business or pleasure Wilander"s big but stems from the fact that despite Sampras" glowing predictions, nearly two years later, that U.S. Open win is the only Grand Slam title under Safin"s belt. Indeed, 2001 was dismal for Safin; he was ousted in early rounds of countless tournaments, though he did claim titles in a couple lesser venues and reached the semis at the U.S. Open. (In his defense, he spent much of that year hampered by damaged nerves in his back.) Safin has fared somewhat better in 2002, reaching the finals in the Australian Open and the Hamburg TMS, as well as the semis at Wimbledon, but still no major titles - though he is currently ranked second in ATP Champions Race points, behind Wimbledon champ Lleyton Hewitt. Many blame Safin"s failure to dominate the ATP circuit on his tendency for distraction - most notably, the above mentioned Golden Horde. ("I need to find the motivation," Safin said after beating Sampras in the quarterfinals this year in Australia. "That"s why I brought so many blondes here tonight.") Indeed, Safin has said that he loves women more than tennis, admitting that "Sometimes you have to choose between business and pleasure" (insisting, however, that he chooses business). And, of course, given Safin"s own reading on the swoon-o-meter - what with the tall (6-foot-4) frame, strapping build and Ben Affleck-ish features, not to mention his yearly income - the opportunities for diversion are widespread and varied. Others blame Safin"s losses on his volatile temper. "I cannot play quiet," Safin explains. "I have to let my feelings show." Indeed, Safin asserts that his volatility helps him on the court: "I have to push myself sometimes when I"m losing Ö I have to break a racquet, whatever, just throw the ball out of the court. In the end, it helps me." (That said, Safin has vowed to calm down on the court. "If it would help my game," he notes, "it would be great.") Safin insists his failures on the court stem from a lack of confidence. He explained in a recent interview, "Losing can make you a little crazy. Then you start to doubt, and it goes from there." He perceptively describes confidence like this: "It"s like love. When you look too hard, you don"t find it. When you let it happen naturally, it comes." At the same time, Safin recognizes the pitfalls of overconfidence, noting that "You need to feel a little bit scared. Not feel fear, but know that anyone can beat you, that it"s not like you can just go to the court and know you"re going to win." In the meantime, Safin says, "I"m looking for myself. I"m looking for my game. Just sometimes it doesn"t work, but you have to keep trying."