Hall of a Contrast

by: Peter Bodo | July 14, 2016

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Safin and Henin couldn't have competed more differently, but both will be enshrined. (AP)

This year’s two most notable inductees into the International Tennis Hall of Fame represent a latter-day tale of sinner and saint. There’s Marat Safin: dissolute, sybaritic, a cavalier underachiever—yet still accomplished enough to merit enshrinement alongside the sport’s icons. And there’s Justine Henin: almost nun-like in her devotion to the game and ever faithful to the pact she struck with her tennis-loving mother, who was taken from her by cancer when Henin was just 12.

“I will win this tournament one day,” 10-year old Justine promised her mother when the pair visited Roland Garros in 1992 to watch Monica Seles play Steffi Graf in a classic final. She would make good on the vow, winning the French Open four times. 

Four years later, Henin began to work with coach Carlos Rodriguez. They struck up a relationship that would transcend the familiar coaching concordat at every level and lasted 15 years. That fealty was obvious in Henin’s professionalism and was justified by her style, a beguiling mix of touch, power and spin. As her game matured, Henin’s great distinction emerged: no woman was so small—just 5'5"—yet played so big. She constantly looked to attack, often behind a slice backhand. But it was Henin’s one-handed topspin backhand that blew away most aesthetes. It’s the connoisseur’s shot because it represents utter abandon married to exquisite control.

Safin never matched Henin as a singles champion in Paris (he did, however, always have a great time there), or anywhere else. She was No. 1 for 117 weeks; he for nine. Henin won 43 singles titles—including seven Slams—while Safin collected 15. The sinner’s credentials pale in comparison to those of the saint. But not his talent, which became manifest in the 2000 US Open, when the 20-year-old demolished 13-time major champion Pete Sampras in straight sets to win the title.

It is emblematic of Safin’s career that it would take him five years to match that performance. At the 2005 Australian Open, Safin beat No. 1-ranked Roger Federer in a dazzling five-set semifinal, then blasted local hero Lleyton Hewitt off the court for his second (and final) major.

Safin stood 6'4" and was armed with a powerful serve and explosive ground strokes. But his greatest liabilities were inconsistency, a hot temper and the satisfaction he took in his reputation as a soulful delinquent. His transgressions ran the gamut: Audible cursing? Check. Smashing racquets? He wrecked 1,055 by his own count, though it seems very un-Safin-like to have kept track, if not to boast about it. 

He mooned the fans at Wimbledon in 2004, earning a point penalty and drawing a fine for “visual obscenity” (though he was wearing underwear). Safin loved the nightlife and all that came with it, once showing up to play the Hopman Cup with two black eyes and a bandaged thumb after a brawl in a Moscow nightclub.

Late in his career, Safin went AWOL and decided to climb Cho Oyu, the sixth-highest mountain in the world. He made it into the foothills, then decided his mountaineering days were over. Known for his enigmatic pronouncements, Safin once told Reuters: “I’ve lived my life the way I wanted to, whether scaling the mountains, partying long into the night or having fun playing soccer.”

There’s nothing enigmatic about that. Safin clearly was the anti-Henin, but at least in this case, the sinner will reap the same reward as the saint.

Originally published in the July/August issue of TENNIS Magazine. 

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