-- It was the kind of shot sent from heaven above. Four hours into a five-set slugfest with nightfall descending, Marat Safin chased down an irretrievable ball and caressed it over the net at an inhuman angle for a drop-shot winner.
And in an inexplicable fit of glee before a packed grandstand at the storied French Open, he dropped his pants.
"It was a great point for me!" Safin explained Friday after a 6-4, 2-6, 6-2, 6-7, 11-9 second-round victory over Felix Mantilla that took two days to complete. "I felt like pulling my pants down. What's bad about that?"
That question had the governing bodies of professional tennis in a dither Friday.
The chair umpire immediately assessed Safin with a one-point penalty for the episode, which occurred shortly before the match was halted for darkness Thursday.
On Friday, after his 4-hour 37-minute victory was secured, Safin railed against the rules and rules enforcers that he claimed were robbing tennis of what he characterized as waning entertainment value. Meantime, officials with the International Tennis Federation debated whether Safin should be fined, too.
"All the people who runs the sport, they have no clue!" said Safin, an uncommonly gifted and notoriously tempestuous Russian, in his post-match interview. "It's a pity that tennis is really going down the drain. . . . They do everything that is possible just to take away the entertainment. You're not allowed to do that; you're not allowed to do this. You're not allowed to speak whenever you want to speak. . . . "
By mid-afternoon the verdict was in. Safin was fined $500 for a "racket abuse" incident that precipitated an earlier warning, but he wasn't fined for dropping his pants.
As clothes-shedding celebrations go, Safin's display was no more scandalous than Brandi Chastain ripping off her shirt after the U.S. women's soccer team won the 1999 World Cup. His torso was bent just forward enough that his baggy shirt dangled over anything once private. As for his backside, eyewitnesses said that his undergarment, while form-fitting, revealed little, either.
Nonetheless, the brief brouhaha shed light on the angst behind the scenes of a game that's facing an eroding audience and the lingering perception that it's both elitist and irrelevant.
"The fact of the matter is that the ATP [Association of Tennis Professionals] agrees with Safin that there needs to be as much entertainment in the game as possible," said Graeme Agars, the ATP's vice president of media relations. "But it still has to be within the bounds of some rules. His general thing about players expressing personality is fine. However, I don't remember Jack Nicklaus ever dropping his pants after sinking a spectacular birdie putt at the British Open."
Former tennis bad boy John McEnroe said Safin should get a bonus rather than a fine for the performance.
"He's one of the best-looking guys on the circuit, and something tells me that a lot of women, and probably some men, too, would like that," said McEnroe, who spoke to reporters following an autograph session at Roland Garros. "I agree with [Safin] 125 percent. I think he should keep on doing what he wants to do because he's a fun personality. So maybe the next time he'll play without a shirt or something, or he'll come on the court naked. That would be exciting."
In its glory days, men's tennis seemed to thrive on the antics of bad boys. Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors were at once uncommonly gifted and vulgar. McEnroe exploded in fits of rage and reveled in bullying officials. But they dominated the game, and the game dominated the sportscasts every time a U.S. Open or Wimbledon was at stake.
Today's top players, particularly the men, aren't as well-known.
Safin argues that it's because their personality and joy are suppressed by the rule book.
"You try to make it fun," Safin said. ". . . It was full crowd, full stadium. We did a great job, I think. Was great tennis for four hours. Because of this incident, that's how we get treated . . . ?"
ATP officials loosened their policy on infractions two years ago expressly to give players more latitude in expressing themselves on the court. In years past, a player who received three warnings (typically for "unsportsmanlike behavior") was automatically defaulted. That was replaced by a one-point or one-game penalty for minor infractions after a warning had been issued.
Still, players can be fined for crossing the behavioral line, as Safin knows.
He was docked $2,000 for not trying hard enough in his first-round loss at the 2000 Australian Open. At the 2001 French Open, he was fined for failing to attend a mandatory news conference after a loss. And in 2002, he was fined $5,000 for verbally attacking a sponsor after he was refused a new Mercedes-Benz loaner to replace the one he had crashed during a tournament in Miami.
"Passion is what we seek," said Bill Babcock, administrator of the Grand Slam Committee and final arbiter of players' behavior at the four major tournaments. "It's just that when it steps past passion to either obscenity or unsportsmanlike conduct, the rules have to make a stand."