Marat Safin insisted repeatedly that he would retire from professional tennis at the end of this year. With a first-round exit at the US Open, the last major of the year, this is, for all intents and purposes, the end for the Russian former World No. 1. Of course, those who follow the sport closely would agree that he has been done a lot longer.
I still remember vividly watching on TV nine years ago when Safin broke through with his first Grand Slam title at the 2000 US Open. Dazzled and elated, Safin didn't seem to know what he was doing there, having just blown Wimbledon champion Pete Sampras off the court in straight sets. In the on-court interview immediately afterward, he was asked how he did it. Still in disbelief himself, he responded jovially with "You think I know?!"
He did it through skill and probably a little help from Sampras's aging bones (although Sampras would avenge that loss a year later). Safin never had that drive that sets the true greats apart, and winning so young at the age of twenty may have left him prematurely complacent. His play thereafter was as erratic as his temper, although he made three Australian Open finals, winning the last of them in 2005, in a run that included a five-set victory over Roger Federer in the semifinals. In fact, until Novak Djokovic ousted a mononucleosis-afflicted Federer at the 2008 Australian Open, Safin would remain the last man to defeat the then already dominant Swiss at a non-clay major. That victory established the Russian as a player to watch at every major afterward, even as his continually declining record offered little suggestion at his doing any real damage.
Perhaps more importantly, Safin was always one of the few guys on the tour with any charisma or personality. He refused to bottle up his emotions, frequently yelling to the crowd and smashing racquets with a fire that seemed of another era. Recent tournaments had offered fewer opportunities to witness that or any side of him, however, as he was unable to reach rounds of consequence.
It's not that hard for me to believe that it's already been nine years since Safin arrived with that US Open victory. What's harder to believe is that his story should have lasted only nine years. And it's not that his career was unusually short for a professional tennis player. But this may be the first case in my life that I have witnessed the story of an elite professional athlete from beginning to end. That has left me with a new, not altogether pleasant appreciation of the passage of time.