Saturday, September 01, 2007

Safin Has Changed but the Grandstand Is the Same

Published: September 1, 2007

Primal screams. Pile drivers. Babies crying. Spectators virtually hanging over the court. Welcome to the grandstand at the United States Open, sometimes known as the Graveyard, where tournaments have ended abruptly for highly ranked players, and careers have sometimes begun to teeter.

Because it is intimate, the grandstand is invaded by the clatter of the Long Island Rail Road, a reminder of time and distance. Yesterday, the train of life was rolling onward for Marat Safin of Russia, who won this tournament in 2000 when he was 20. Now an old man of 27, Safin was ushered out in the second round by Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3.

“You know how many times I have like this?” Safin said later in nearly perfect English, his third language. He added: “And one bad day off, there is not much you can do. That’s it. The day is over and we move on, back to our lives.”

Not everybody has taken an upset on the grandstand court with as much pragmatism, whether feigned or real. Boris Becker was not amused when he was eliminated by Brad Gilbert in 1987, and Vitas Gerulaitis did not wax philosophical when knocked out by the 16-year-old amateur Aaron Krickstein in 1983. And fifth-seeded Kevin Curren staged an epic tirade when he was upset by Guy Forget in the very first round in 1985.

“I hate the city, the environment and Flushing Meadow,” Curren said. “There is noise, the people in the grandstand are never seated and it takes an hour and a half in traffic to get here. It’s sickening that with all the money they get from TV, the U.S.T.A. doesn’t build a better facility. The U.S.T.A. should be shot. And they should drop an A-bomb on the place.”

The Open has since upgraded its facilities, but the grandstand still hunkers down on the east end of campus, a magnet for grounds-pass-only fans who want to get close to good players.

“Hit the ball,” Essie Herron, a fan visiting from Milwaukee, blurted yesterday as Ahsha Rolle of the United States dinked a volley rather than drill her opponent, Dinara Safina of Russia, sister of Marat.

“She does that every game,” added Herron’s friend Lolita Bevenue, also of Milwaukee, part of Rolle’s frustrated gallery, a few rows up behind the baseline.

Rolle was not helped when the pneumatic pile drivers at the Mets’ future ballpark (why do I keep wanting to call it New Shea?) began booming as she served in the 10th game. Perhaps distracted, Rolle lost, 6-4, 6-3, and then Safina’s older brother came out for his grandstand moment.

Strange things have happened in this joint, where Wilt Chamberlain used to sit and schmooze away the lazy August evenings. Bud Collins, the vibrant memory of tennis, recalls rushing over to the grandstand in 1995 when Shuzo Matsuoka of Japan suffered leg cramps and was essentially counted out as he writhed on the court. And for sheer macho tennis, there was Chip Hooper’s second-round knockout of Roscoe Tanner in 1982, volleys hitting body parts like heavyweight punches.

Safin’s loss yesterday was nowhere near that epic, just a 25th-seeded player on his way out. Somebody remembered that after Safin beat Pete Sampras in the 2000 final, Sampras predicted Safin would win many more Grand Slam events.

“See, even the geniuses make the mistakes,” Safin said yesterday. Safin has since won one Australian Open and was not predicting any more yesterday.

“Only the most beautiful moments still to come,” said Safin, a figure out of Tolstoy or Chekhov ruminating on life. “The past wasn’t bad for me, but the future is — that’s why I will hope for the best. That’s why moving through life, I think the best moments are still to come. It can be tennis or anything different.”

Safin said his life was so much better than he could have imagined when his mother, Raouza Islanova, a tennis coach, moved the family from Moscow to Spain and gave him $500, saying: “You have luck or you don’t have luck. So this is your last hope.”

He added: “To come from there, from having nothing, zero, and to become what I achieve right until now, well, it’s a long way. I could have ended up anywhere in Moscow or Russia, doing God knows what. I’m sitting here, and you’re asking me pretty nice questions, so I think I did pretty well in my career.”

This mood was far from the elation he touched off in 2000, when President Vladimir V. Putin praised him in Moscow while Safin partied the night away in New York.

Now, Safin said, he doesn’t hang out in the players’ lounge, preferring to rest up in his Manhattan hotel (“SoHo — I’m not a big fan of uptown,” he said) and perhaps take coffee in a cafe and watch the world pass by. He continued in that reflective vein for many minutes, far removed from the nihilistic Kevin Curren rant 22 years ago. The grandstand affects people in many ways.



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