Marat Safin dropped so low in the rankings that he had to go through qualifying to get into the Hamburg Masters event. Somehow, though, he managed to resurrect himself long enough to take out Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon.
Omigod, Marat Safin beat Novak Djokovic in the second round at Wimbledon today! What is going on? Is Marat a bit chuffed that his baby sister Dinara Safina just played the grand slam of her life at the French Open? Was he afraid that his sister might overtake his slam total of two? Does he want to send a reminder to the top three that he was once Roger Federer’s main competitor?
Maybe he read that Nole signed up with CAA (Creative Arts Agency) – the Los Angeles based uber-talent agency that currently represents David Beckham, George Clooney, and Marilyn Manson, among many others – and it pissed him off because he never signed with CAA and he has the same manager as Nole.
Maybe, but the wind, a bit of idolatry, the pressure, and some mental fatigue also helped.
The wind made it hard to find a rhythm and Nole never did find his rhythm. He was broken at love to go down 3-4 in the first set and by this time Nole had already hit four double faults and traded breaks with Marat. It wasn’t just Nole screwing up, though; he went for big second serves because Marat was eating up his second serve. On the other hand, Nole hit ten double faults in the match so clearly he wasn’t feeling so good. Marat held on to the break to win the first set 6-4.
Jeez, Marat has the prettiest two-hander in the game and I have missed that shot so much since he’s devolved into the 75th ranked player on tour. It’s the most efficient stroke in tennis. He simply takes the racket back and follows through with a short, sweet stroke. That shot kept him even in the second set as neither player was broken
In the tiebreaker, Nole looked out of sorts. He sent a forehand long and followed that up with an easy backhand into the net to go down 1-4 but, again, he had help. Safin put a very good wide serve back into play. By now Nole should have been expecting that but he wasn’t and he got some bad luck too. He hit a shot that landed on the baseline but was called out and, on the replay, Marat his a pretty drop volley.
Marat Safin was now up two sets to none over Novak Djokovic and we were starting to look for explanations. Nole had a mix of contradictory emotions going through his head. He had the pressure of keeping up with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. He’d played, and lost, to Nadal in his last three tournaments and they were critical matches because he could have passed Nadal in the rankings had he won.
The pressure led to mental fatigue, which he admitted after the match, and he was also playing a man he’d idolized:
I looked at him as one of the greatest players, one of the idols. I admired the way he plays. …I have a lot of respect for him. Maybe that played a roll today in the match.
He not only idolized Marat but he has yet to win a set off him. Nole won only three games in their only previous match at the 2005 Australian Open. He was 17 at the time and it was his first slam so that match shouldn’t count, but I’m looking for anything to explain Nole’s lack of fight. He won two games in the third set and ended the match with a double fault as Marat won the match, 6-4, 7-6(3), 6-2.
There’s the opposite side of pressure too. Nole knew that Marat had seldom put consecutive wins together this year and he was thrown off when a different Marat turned up on court. And it was a Marat who had no pressure at all because no one expected anything of him. He hadn’t even looked at his draw beyond Nole. Why should he? He acted like he took a tranquilizer before the match. Except for a few swings at the ball after an error, there was no mental instability to be found. After the match, same thing. Not even an impish grin. All you saw was a tennis player under control.
If that wasn’t shocking enough, there were also his motor skills. He hasn’t played well since returning to the tour from a knee injury in 2006. Before the injury he was ranked in the top five but he hasn’t gone above number 22 since. He just doesn’t have the explosiveness he used to have and he’s never played well on grass.
We can explain away the grass by remembering that grass ain’t what it used to be. It’s much slower now and Marat gave thanks for that after the match. But how do we explain his court coverage and dead on return of serve?
Throw in a bad day for Nole and a resurrection for Marat and that will have to do.