Safin was mercurial in his ways, a man of many moods, and a player who did not always do justice to his supreme talent. But the fact remains that he made the most of his many gifts on more than a few occasions, at the places of consequence, on stages where history of the highest order is made. In 2000, when he was only 20 and oblivious to a large degree about what he was in the process of doing, Safin turned in what was irrefutably the signature performance of his career, toppling the mighty Pete Sampras 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in the final of the U.S. Open.
This devastatingly potent display was so masterful—he served with astonishing power and accuracy, returned magnificently off both sides, and set the tempo persuasively from the backcourt with sustained pace and precision—that Safin seemed to instantly recognize he might not ever replicate such unconscious brilliance. It was simultaneously a blessing and a burden for the swashbuckling Russian.It was almost beyond Safin’s comprehension to strike down a figure of Sampras’s stature so comprehensively in the final of a major championship, but he had done just that.
Thereafter, life got more complicated. Safin climbed to No. 1 in the world that autumn, and nearly finished the year as the top ranked player in the world, falling narrowly short behind Gustavo Kuerten for that distinction. The sometimes enigmatic yet ever intriguing Russian reached a pair of semifinals at the majors over the next two years, and should have captured the 2002 Australian Open, bowing inexplicably against Sweden’s Thomas Johansson in a perplexing final round contest at the Australian Open. Safin returned to the final in Melbourne two years later, bowing against none other than Roger Federer.
A year later, Safin collided with Federer again at the Australian Open, this time in the semifinals. Both men played stupendous, top of the line, mechanically sound and inspirational tennis. Safin was down match point in the fourth set of that duel. Federer seemed certain to succeed. He was in a strong position up at the net. But Safin scampered forward swiftly and lofted an excellent lob over Federer. The Swiss retreated and tracked the ball down ably, but missed a “tweener”. Safin escaped and came through to win 9-7 in the fifth set. Buoyed by that triumph over the world No. 1, Safin eclipsed Lleyton Hewitt in a four set final to secure a second major title, recouping boldly after securing only one game in the opening set.
His career was first rate, but Henin’s was superior. While Safin’s two-handed backhand was one of his signature shots and among the finest in the men’s game during his era, Henin’s one-handed backhand was in my view one of the five best in the history of the women’s game. She drove through the ball beautifully off that side, avoiding excessive topspin, keeping her shots relatively flat. Henin was an outstanding, modern day percentage player. Just shy of 5’6″, she was a diminutive player but no one had a larger heart or a more complete game; the most underrated part of her arsenal was the volley.
Henin won prolifically, stylishly, intelligently. At a time when she was predominantly confronting taller and stronger rivals, Henin commendably prospered with superb court positioning, extraordinary match playing skills and fierce determination. Henin was my kind of competitor—unbending, composed, clear thinking and tenacious. Her record was outstanding. The Belgian took seven Grand Slam championships altogether from 2003-2007, winning four French Open crowns in that sterling span, securing two U.S. Opens, and one Australian Open title.
Her lone disappointment was not adding Wimbledon to her long line of achievements. Henin was twice in the final on the fabled Centre Court at the All England Club, falling in a three set final against Venus Williams in 2001, bowing in another three set clash against Amelie Mauresmo five years later despite claiming the first set convincingly.
During our press gathering on the phone, I asked Henin if, considering her phenomenal record, her lone regret was not winning Wimbledon? She replied, ” I wouldn’t say it was a regret. It’s something I’ve been thinking [about] a lot, the only Grand Slam [tournament] I didn’t win. It was my dream to win one Grand Slam. It was my dream to become No. 1. When I won the French Open once, I won it more. I started to win the U.S. Open, Australian Open, more French Opens. Then there was Wimbledon. These opportunities I got [were there], especially against Mauresmo.I won the first set 6-2. I was in control. I am the kind of person who is looking after the perfection all the time, which doesn’t exist for sure. But I see it as a good thing that there’s something not complete in my career, so I can accept that. I gave everything I had in my career.”
That could have been the end of her very thoughtful answer, but it was not. Henin had more to say on the subject. She continued, “Of course, when you look back, you always can say, ‘Did I give my best? I should have done this. I should have done that.’ Yeah, it’s no time to live with regrets. I’ve been working a lot by visualizing everything I wanted to accomplish. Wimbledon, it was pretty tough for me….No,I don’t see it as a regret. I just see it as something that makes me, I don’t know, not happy because I wish I could win it. But I have to accept that. It’s far away already. Now life has changed a lot and I feel so pleased and happy about everything I achieved in my career.”
I liked her response immensely. Henin was forthright in analyzing why she was twice only one set away from sealing a Wimbledon title, only to fall narrowly and agonizingly short of that lofty goal. As for Safin, I reminded him that he had said at one point following his stunning U.S. Open victory over Sampras that he might never replicate that level of play again. I asked him to reflect now on whether or not he still feels that way, or does he believe his hard fought, five set triumph over Federer in Australia was just as good as what he gave against Sampras?
Safin replied, “For me, it [the Sampras match] was the first match I played incredible tennis. It made such a big impact on me and my career, and I win a Grand Slam [tournament]. Then, after the U.S. Open, I wanted to win more. That’s why I was so anxious and started to see myself that I could win much more of them. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do it. I had two finals in Australia and one semifinal in Wimbledon, a semifinal in Roland Garros. It was like a big change this match against Sampras. It was surprising. I won a Grand Slam [event] and I played the best tennis I ever could. It gave me a chance to be No. 1 and be at the top level.”
Asked to compare that win to the clutch display he put on against Federer in 2005, Safin said, “It was a different match. It was a more workable match because I had a lot of chances against Federer. With Federer, I had a few close matches to beat him and I never could manage it. I was anxious to win this Australian Open match against Federer. It made it so much tougher. Probably I didn’t play like I played against Sampras, but also it was a different game, different player, different situation. It was much more workable. The level of tennis, obviously it was, yeah, one of the best, or the second best match ever.”
Earlier, Safin addressed whether or not he fulfilled his potential as a player. He responded, “I have to say, the way I started my career, I came from a very difficult country. It was difficult to come out of the country, No money. To come out of the country and start to play on the world level, I think it’s a really big achievement. Obviously., back then I would love to win more tournaments, more Grand Slam tournaments, more things in my career. But unfortunately I had a lot of injuries also. Sometimes probably I wasn’t well prepared for what I was going through. I had lack of experience and slightly not the right decisions were taken.”
Safin reflected again on the 2000 U.S. Open and explained with clarity why it was such a joyous and shocking moment in his professional evolution. He said, “That was unexpected. First of all, I started that year dropping. I didn’t win a match for seven weeks. I was not at my best at all. By the middle of the year I was already 45 in the world. Then in one month and a half I managed to turn everything around to be able to win a U.S. Open…. I had some matches that I should have lost. I [somehow] won matches. I beat Todd Martin in the semifinals. Thank you very much, Todd, for that one.”
Martin was on the line. He is now the CEO for the International Tennis Hall of Fame, but back then the popular American was a formidable player who reached the U.S. Open final in 1999 and achieved a No. 4 world ranking. On our conference call last week, Martin said genially, “Marat, that was the one you were supposed to lose.”
Safin appreciated the humorous remark from Martin, asserting,” Exactly. I shouldn’t even rise to the semifinal. I should have lost to Gianluca Pozzi [a 35-year-old Italian who pushed Safin to five sets]. Obviously, to play Pete in the finals, nobody expects me to beat him because he’s playing already on different levels. If he gets to the finals, he’s unbelievable. The name he has, playing in the States, all of those things go against me. Probably that was a good thing because nobody expected anything from me and I could play my best tennis and it turned out pretty well. The only thought I had was not to lose too easy and to make a good show on the court. But to win? Not even close.”
Both Safin and Henin were fielding their share of questions. Henin spoke about the notion of “impossible is nothing”. What did she mean?
She answered,”It means that if we believe in our dreams, if we dream, believe in it. I think a lot of things are possible. Impossible is something is a campaign for Adidas. I was lucky to support that campaign a few years ago. I think it really inspired me a lot because it’s a little bit the story of my life. Coming from a small country, but not bering so tall, not being so strong, like for a lot of people life hasn’t been so easy for me when I was young. Not a lot of people really believed I could reach my goal because my dream was to become the best player in the world. It became my goal. A lot of people thought I was a little bit crazy. But strongly, deeply, I never really doubted the fact that I could make it. I always say to the young people, ‘Don’t stop dreaming, believe in your dreams, do everything you can to reach your dreams.’ It’s very important. If we have a goal, we have to do everything to reach it.”
Henin spoke about the defining experience of going to Roland Garros with her mother at the age of 10 to watch Steffi Graf and Monica Seles in the final, and telling her parent, “One day I will be on this court and I will win the tournament…I was so convinced and determined. There was no question. That was my destiny. When it happened, my Mom wasn’t there. She passed away. So it was like a promise that I could make. It was, of course, emotional, a very good memory for me.”
To be sure, Henin has a treasure chest of fine memories. She played in a era when the women’s game sparkled, and the public was enticed by the diversity of competitors and personalities. In her time, Henin celebrated many successes against both Venus and Serena Williams, enjoyed an appealing all-Belgian rivalry with the universally revered Kim Clijsters, traded baseline punches with Maria Sharapova, faced Lindsay Davenport and confronted Martina Hingis. In a singularly impressive performance that summed up in so many ways the essence of a great champion, Henin overcame Jennifer Capriati in an epic semifinal confrontation at the U.S. Open in 2003, winning that crackling battle 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4) in three hours. Less than 24 hours later, Henin stopped Clijsters in the final. The way I look at it, that was the high water moment of her career.
Recollecting the Capriati clash in New York, Henin said, “I had 22,000 people against me. After three hours, it was just an amazing match, probably one of the best matches of my career and something I will never forget.”
For Marat Safin, the same word applies to the feeling he has about the honor that will bestowed upon him in July at the International Tennis Hall of Fame. As he puts it, “It’s amazing to be part of it, amazing to be recognized that you have achieved something in tennis, to have the honor to be in the Hall of Fame.”
Henin is no less exhilarated by an accolade unlike any other she has ever received. ” It’s just fantastic. It’s an honor to be part of the game, the history of the game. When you play, you don’t realize that you’re going to be part of the game forever. Now, with this honor, probably I realize that a little bit more.”
They are two worthy Hall of Famers who worked hard, achieved highly and played magnificently to arrive at this destination. Safin was enigmatic and, at times, wildly unpredictable. But he underlined his excellence when he won his second major at the Australian Open eleven years ago. Henin was industrious, quietly brilliant, and a woman with supreme dedication to her craft who made the most of herself across the board. With or without Wimbledon, she flourished and her record was exemplary. Safin stamped his authority on an era as well. Along with Safin and Henin, the Frenchman Yvon Petra (the 1946 Wimbledon champion), and Great Britain’s Margaret Scriven—twice the victor at the French Championships—will be inducted posthumously.
This will be a memorable and extraordinary year in Newport. I’m glad some of us in the media got such a good preview of the proceedings.