If it weren't for his monstrous athletic ability, Marat Safin might have been best suited for the Russian stage. That's because there's hardly an emotion that the 6-foot-4 Muscovite hasn't expressed as he thunders around the court, either through his scowling eyebrows, sulky lower lip, manic gestures or, on one famous occasion, dropped tennis drawers.
The only disappointing thing about tennis's most theatrical player is that his performances over the years have tended to rise and fall with his emotions, earning Safin the dubious distinction of being the most gifted yet mentally unstable player in a profoundly mental game.
And though Wimbledon is just three days old, with 10 days yet to play before the 2005 men's champion is crowned, Safin -- at least for the moment -- is happy. And this is no small matter, mind you, considering that Safin stormed off Wimbledon's grass courts last year, fuming "I hate this!" and vowing never to return to the All England club.
But after dispatching Australia's Mark Philippoussis, 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (7-4), 6-4, on Wednesday, Safin was singing the praises of Wimbledon's sod.
"It's really important to have fun on grass because it's a tough surface," said Safin, 25. "It's difficult to [break serve]. It's difficult to play off the baseline because [of] a lot of bad bounces. And if you're not having fun, it's impossible to do anything good here."
The fact that Safin is now frolicking on the surface he once despised is not just good news for the trainers and coaches and loved ones who have to deal with the brooding Russian. It's good news for fans eager to see exceptional shot-making at Wimbledon this year and, ideally, a player emerge from the draw capable of challenging Roger Federer, who appears almost preordained to claim his third consecutive Wimbledon title.
Chief among those fans is John McEnroe, a three-time Wimbledon champion himself, who has provided television commentary for the BBC during Safin's first two matches here this week. McEnroe's assessment is that Safin, who reached Wimbledon's quarterfinals in 2001 (an achievement Safin dismisses as freakish luck), has never played better here.
"The mental game is somewhat unpredictable with Marat, which is why he is so dangerous at times," McEnroe said in a conference call Wednesday. "He doesn't seem to know exactly what to expect from himself. He has come in often to Wimbledon with such a negative attitude. He's really a physical animal; he's an incredibly gifted athlete, and he moves around the court extremely well. And I'm happy to report that he seems to have come here with the desire and will to prove he can play on the surface."
Safin's mental shift occurred just weeks ago, he explained, when he advanced to the final of a grass-court tournament in Halle, Germany. He lost to Federer in the final but came away with a new ease on the surface.
"I felt really comfortable moving on it," Safin said. "One of the most important things, actually, when you're playing on grass, is to move. All of the sudden this came to me, and I felt pretty good."
Safin clearly felt good against Philippoussis. The strapping Aussie (who also is 6-4) was a dangerous opponent because of his booming serve, attacking style and grass-court credentials as a 2003 runner-up at Wimbledon. Knee, ankle, groin and back injuries since have sent him tumbling from the rankings, but he was granted a wild-card entry this year and arrived hungry to reclaim his place in the game.
With both men unleashing booming serves, neither could muster a break in the first set. Philippoussis had three set points with Safin serving at 4-5, but failed to convert. Safin prevailed in the tiebreaker, and the second set played out exactly as the first.
Even worse for Philippoussis, he aggravated a strained tendon in his lower right leg in the first set, and it hampered him more as the match wore on, though Philippoussis insisted it wasn't a factor in his loss.
It had a palpable effect on Safin, however, who made Philippoussis run for balls at every opportunity.
"He couldn't really move to the sides," Safin said. "If you follow him for the past five years, actually, he had so many injuries. And he's a tall guy. I mean, like, he's pretty heavy [217 pounds, to Safin's 195). He needs to take care of himself, really, like needs to travel with a doctor."
Safin let his own training and discipline slip after winning the U.S. Open in 2000, and his ranking plunged from a high of No. 2 to No. 77 at the end of 2003.
In his struggle to get back to the top 10, Safin hired Federer's former coach, Peter Lundgren, hired a personal trainer and overhauled his diet. And four-plus years after winning the U.S. Open, he defeated Lleyton Hewitt in the final of the Australian Open to claim his second Grand Slam in January.
"He seems to at least have his head into it," McEnroe said. "And when his head is into it, he's one of the best players in the world."