The race of Marat Safin It ended in 2009 with numbers consistent with its legend. Two Grand Slam titles, fifteen ATP titles, two Davis Cups, nine weeks as world number 1 and a decade of unforgettable performances where he was able to beat the best. These are the most distinguished numbers, the ones we will always remember; Today we will talk about just the opposite vertex, the origin and starting point of that trajectory. Let’s go to Roland Garros 1998, where an 18-year-old Russian boy, after passing the previous phase, meets with Andre Agassi in the first round. That meant his first participation in a Grand Slam tournament, the tournament that would mark him for life.

A 22-year journey into the past is too risky to do alone, so we invited Marat coaches back then to join us. “I was in the final table with Rafa Mensua, but in the previous phase neither of us could be there,” he recalls. Pancho Alvariño, one of the directors of the mythical TennisVal. “So Marat had to travel with my nephew, who also taught at the Peñasol initiation school. He was already playing very well, he had a good ranking, we knew he was capable of everything but we did not imagine that he would achieve that result in this tournament. When it was over the previous phase, both Rafa and I went to Paris, “he recalls fondly.

Safin, who at that time was the 116th of the ranking world championship, he beat Qualy beating Davide Scala, Christian Ruud and Francisco Cabello. Once he got his ticket for the main draw, the draw gave him a high challenge: André Agassi. “We always considered that Marat could play well on clay, from the moment he was brought to the Academy. I still remember María José Pascual’s call from England: ‘Pancho, we have a 13-year-old Russian player with only one sponsor, we want to know if it’s worth investing in.’ At that time we tested him and discovered his potential, his desire to win, he was a winner. Sometimes a lot has been said about him, about his image, but here he always worked like an animal. Talent without work does not exist, we always told him ”, adds Pancho.

It was in Valencia where the foundations were laid for what Marat Safin would end up being in his career, a benchmark of 1.93m in height capable of shining on all surfaces and possessing mobility from the baseline that was difficult to understand. “The doctors, when they studied his case, warned us of one thing:‘Be careful with this boy because he will be very tall, you have to work very hard on your physique, concepts like coordination or speed. ’ So it was. That game was a reflection of what would come next, of all that self-confidence, although he already saw himself beating anyone back then. It was a victory that marked him, he made a great tournament and, in addition, it showed that he was not only a dangerous player on fast track, he could also compete on the ground, ”says Alvariño, who would later train his sister Safina. “We teach him that spanish system of more patience, to elaborate the point, which added to his talent ended up designing a very complete player ”.

But let’s not lose focus of the meeting. On the one hand was Marat, at 18, out of the top100 and ready to debut in a Grand Slam. In the other corner, Agassi, ten years older, ex number 1 in the world, with three majors in the suitcase and immersed in a clearly ascending season, recovering his best feelings. The American pursued the dream of completing the magic square of the Grand Slams, he only needed to conquer Paris, where he had never been defeated in the first round. The Suzanne Lenglen would enjoy a duel of 3h12min where both were squeezed from the baseline, the Russian being the brand-new winner after a fifth set where there was no color (5-7, 7-5, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2).

“After that victory we remembered a lot about Miguel Maeso and José Enrique Gayà, its first physical trainers. It was crazy what he ran in that game, Agassi took him from side to side. Our doubt was never in terms of tennis, talent was left over, our doubt was whether Marat was going to be able to endure the five sets with an Agassi that moved you from one side to the other. In the end he endured like a champion, just like in the following two games, until he lost to Cédric Pioline in the round of 16, also in five sets ”, confesses Alvariño.

Safin’s life was changed by that triumph, but his path did not stop there. In the next round the current champion awaited him, Gustavo Kuerten, who would yield to the Muscovite in another marathon. In the third round it would be Daniel Vacek who would succumb to the mighty right-hander. It was his first Grand Slam and his name looked among the best 16, definitive proof of the unstoppable projection that he hid. “Suddenly, I woke up a media attention that I was not prepared for and I was not comfortable with. I was 18 years old and I was a shy kid. I got pretty overwhelmed and I paid for it by being eliminated in the first round in seven of the following eight tournaments that I played ”, Marat himself assessed in an interview months later. “Fortunately, I had people like Rafa Mensua by my side who helped me stay as focused as possible. But it was very difficult, I was at a very immature age and I really had a hard time. “

Rafa MensuaHe was one of those key people who guided Marat in his early years on the circuit. Who formed it, guided and matured over six intense seasons. He is the one who must put an end to this article, since nobody shared more hours with our protagonist than the Valencian. “For him, that game was the beginning of something important, the beginning of his professional career. Seeing that he could win matches of that level gave him the confidence of knowing that he could win many more. Let’s say there he was aware of his potential, but without stopping working every day and fighting for each point. Marat won several top10s that season, in fact, two days after beating Agassi, he beats Kuerten again in five sets. That was his explosion, he would not go down the ranking again until in 2000 he became number 1 in the world. From 18 to 21 he went through a time of brutal growth and it was all thanks to that tournament, what happened in that Roland Garros