Put a fork in Safin?

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - When a turkey's done, you put a fork in it. The same, I suppose, can be said for a struggling tennis player -- like Marat Safin.

At the beginning of this decade, Safin looked like a slam dunk (or at least an overhead smash) to win perhaps a half dozen major titles. He roared to a U.S. Open championship in 2000, including a complete dismantling of American tennis hero Pete Sampras in the finale in Flushing. And as a mere 20-year-old at the time, "experts" just assumed that big win would be the first of many for the strapping Russian.

I guess we were wrong.

The charismatic Safin became the No. 1 player in the world in November of 2000 and would finish inside the Top 5 three times in a five-year span. But he hasn't placed inside the Top 10 now for four years running, and has almost become an afterthought on the ATP at the still-serviceable age of 28.

Sure, the currently 29th-ranked Safin, who considers grass to be his worst surface, stunned the tennis world by reaching his first-ever Wimbledon semifinal back in July, but after becoming the first-ever Russian man to reach the final four at SW19, he followed up that strong showing with mostly disappointing results the rest of the way in 2008.

He's gone 9-10 since his run at the Big W, including a dash into a final in his native Moscow last month. But he lost to fellow Russian Igor Kunitsyn (who?) in the Moscow finale while attempting to corral his first title of any kind in almost four years. Safin has certainly made a habit of losing to inferior opponents throughout his inconsistent career.

Marat Safin has smashed his fair share of racquets on tennis courts the world over.
Some of his setbacks this season have come at the hands of such tennis luminaries as Bobby Reynolds, Lukas Dlouhy, Robin Haase, Potito Starace, Denis Gremelmayr (let me know when you recognize any of these names), Fabio Fognini, Philipp Petzschner, and Andrey Golubev.

On a whopping 17 occasions this year, Safin fell in the first or second round of a tournament, including nine event-opening bouts. That's rather poor for such a large talent.

Aside from going 5-1 at Wimbledon, Safin was a combined 3-3 at the other three majors this year, failing to get past the second round at the Aussie, French and U.S. Opens.

In all fairness to Marat, he has reached four career Grand Slam finals (2-2), with his other victory coming at the 2005 Aussie Open. He had runner-up finishes at the 2002 and 2004 Aussie Opens, and landed in the final in Melbourne three times in a four-year period.

He's also one of only five active men to have reached the semifinals at all four Grand Slam events, joining Roger Federer, David Nalbandian, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.

But since capturing his lone U.S. Open title eight years ago, Safin has only made it back to the semis in New York once, in 2001, and with the exception of Wimbledon this year, he's basically been a non-factor at the Slams the last three campaigns.

The 6-foot-4 Safin came onto the professional tennis scene as a vastly- talented 17-year-old back in 1997. The following year, the promising Russian teen played in three majors and reached the fourth round in two of them (Roland Garros and U.S. Open) and was named the ATP Newcomer of the Year. He stunned Andre Agassi and the then-defending champion Gustavo Kuerten in back- to-back matches at the '98 French.

By 2000, he was already a major champion and had an impressive eight ATP titles to his credit, including no less than seven in '00, when he was named the ATP's Most Improved Player of the Year. But Safin has managed only seven titles since then, including just one major championship.

The popular two-time major champion Safin is seen here signing autographs at an event in Thailand.
He's piled up just under $14 million in prize money, but with some real focus (and, of course, some better health) you'd have to think he'd be in the $25 million range by now. Safin, in addition to a well-documented lack of focus, has been plagued by injuries, which certainly have been a contributing factor to his underachieving status.

Tell me if this helps your tennis game: In September of last year (which is during the season), Safin spent 10 days climbing part of Cho Oyu -- the world's sixth-highest mountain -- in the Himalayas.

A combination of inactivity and poor results led the hot-headed Russian to a year-end finish of No. 77 back in 2003, and No. 56 last year. He hasn't won 50 matches in one season since 2004 (52-23), which is a far cry from his career- best 73-27 performance in 2000, a year that saw him finish a career-high year- end No. 2.

He was a lackluster 24-24 in 2008 and hasn't won a title since the '05 Aussie.

And after tallying five Masters Series titles from 2000-04, the hard-hitting Russian hasn't prevailed at such an event over the last four years. He captured the prestigious Paris Masters a record-tying three times in four tries from 2000-04 (he skipped the event in 2003) and reached the final there four times in five attempts at one point.

Safin is probably best known for his emotional outbursts, and has smashed hundreds of racquets during his career. The multilingual star often berates himself on court, dressing himself down in either Russian, Spanish or English.

He's also known as a party guy that loves the ladies and hasn't fully dedicated himself to his craft.

Safin still possesses that big serve, those massive deep groundstrokes and that underrated court quickness, but he's been unable to harness the total package on a consistent basis for the majority of his career. The chances of him ever winning another major look downright bleak at this point, especially with the likes of Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Andy Murray (not to mention youngsters like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Juan Martin del Potro and Ernests Gulbis) all around and in their primes.

His thunder has been stolen by his younger sister, Dinara Safina, who has soared all the way up to No. 2 in the world among the women, and had runner-up finishes at this year's French Open and Olympic Games.

Safin, who will turn 29 in January, will still probably wind up in the Tennis Hall of Fame, having reached No. 1, secured two major titles and captured a pair of Davis Cup championships (2002, 2006), but we all expected a lot more from this uber-talented athlete.

Whatever happened to "Super" Safin?

Ace or double fault? Send your comments to Scott Riley at sriley@sportsnetwork.com.
Scott Riley
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