Fifteen years ago, Marat Safin sat on the balcony of the competitors' area at Wimbledon. On this warm summer day, at tennis’ grand cathedral, the man who brought the word “mercurial” to new heights (or depths) pondered a great many topics—what tennis meant to him, why Russia had emerged as a tennis powerhouse, and, with the skill of the politician Safin would later become, how he balanced on-court work with off-court play.
As the talk neared its conclusion, Safin was asked what worried him most. “My biggest fear,” said Safin, “is going to the dentist.”
“But how does that compare,” came a logical follow-up question, “with playing Fabrice Santoro?”
Safin paused and cast his eyes far away. Wimbledon at this moment meant nothing. There was the whole planet to ponder, maybe even the galaxy.
He returned to earth.
“On second thought,” said Safin, “I would rather have a root canal than play Santoro.”
While we know nothing of Safin’s dental history, we do know that after he made this statement, he never again had to play Santoro. Fortunately. Though once ranked No. 1 in the world, compared to Santoro’s peak of 17, Safin’s career mark versus the Frenchman was a meager 2-7.
Losing seven of nine matches to someone was one thing. Losing to Santoro was altogether different. Even winning was painful. But while Santoro’s opponents often felt agony, those witnessing his dissections enjoyed many moments of ecstasy.
The making of a playing style is an uncertain process—arguably the most vivid example of how learning to play tennis is much more art than science. There might be a conveniently located instructor who teaches players to hit the ball a certain way. Or a parent armed with ideas acquired from websites, magazines, books and random conversations. Or there might be several local greats, armed with a certain playing style that, create a template of sorts, as was the case for the Aussie net-rushers of the 1950s and 1960s, the steady post-Borg Swedes of the 1980s, or the contemporary Spanish grinders.
And then there are the independent thinkers. Santoro hit with two hands off both sides, continuing to do so even after an instructor told him that was a bad idea. Instead, Santoro had his own set of ideas. He was a world class version of an archetype seen at many a club; the cagey hack, often armed with the largest-sized racquet available, as if casting a fishnet every time he hit the ball. There were cuts, drops, loops, sneak attacks, the occasional flat drive thrown in just to remind you he could crack one too.
As Santoro made his way into the pro game, he was mentored for a time by another double-double-hander, former world No. 4 Gene Mayer.
“My partnership with Fabrice was very rewarding,” Mayer told Marco Staiano in a 2016 interview. “He was an extremely creative player. We were able to communicate easily. His natural instincts very much lined up with mine. Few players would have willing to take the risks that Fabrice was willing to. Our mutual trust and respect really made this relationship successful.”
Over the course of a career that lasted two decades, Santoro earned wins over just about all of the great players of his time—as far back as Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi, to recent greats Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. Santoro captured six ATP singles and 24 doubles titles, including a pair of Australian doubles trophies alongside fellow Frenchman Michael Llodra in 2003 and 2004, beating the Bryan brothers in the latter final. Santoro also won the 2005 Roland Garros mixed doubles title with Daniela Hantuchova, their last match being a three-set win over two of the greatest doubles players ever, Martina Navratilova and Leander Paes.
His most remarkable singles victory came on native grounds. In 2004, in the first round of Roland Garros, the unseeded Santoro entered Court Suzanne Lenglen to take on his compatriot, 32nd-seeded Arnaud Clement. Clement was a fit, steady player who had beaten Andre Agassi at the 2000 US Open and reached the final of the 2001 Australian Open. Santoro handily won the first two sets, 6-4, 6-3. Clement countered, winning the third in a tiebreaker, the fourth 6-3, and then going up 3-0 in the fifth. At 9:30 p.m., with the score 5-all in the fifth, the match was suspended.
Over the course of nearly two hours the next day, Santoro fought off two match points to win it, 16-14. At 6 hours and 33 minutes, this had become the longest match in the Open era, a mark that held until the 11-hour and five-minute epic played at Wimbledon in 2010 by John Isner and Nicholas Mahut.
“It’s an exceptional moment,” said a weary and teary Santoro.
While he lacked the weaponry to make long, sustainable runs, Santoro never failed to entertain, the classic kind of spoiler with a distinct playing style that made him a quintessential cult favorite. Pete Sampras, a player Santoro beat three times in seven matches, named him “The Magician.” Best Actor? No. Best Supporting Actor? Maybe. Better yet: Best Special Effects.