Every now and then we are surprised by greatness. Usually it comes from redundant people and we expect it: from Tiger Woods and Tom Brady, Kobe Bryant and Albert Pujols.
Sure, these people don't always succeed, but when we see their greatness, we can only admire it.
But Wednesday, we were surprised and we shouldn't have been. Less than eight years ago, Marat Safin was number one in the world and expected to challenge Pete Sampras's mark of 14 grand slam titles. And really, we would have been more surprised if he did not. He had everything: a solid serve, a nasty backhand that could put the ball anywhere on the court, and one of the two best return games since Jimmy Connors, right next to Andre Agassi.
At the 2000 U.S. Open, Sampras had 18 aces in a straight set win over Lleyton Hewitt in the semifinals. He could muster only eight against Safin in the finals. Additionally, Safin earned nine break chances, converting four of them. In his first six matches of the tournament, Sampras had only been broken four times total.
When Safin won that final to claim his first grand slam title, many people thought we were seeing a changing of the guards. Safin rose to the top position in the world after that victory and he seemed to have the complete package. Within a year, he began plummeting.
It wasn't that he was a flash in the pan. No, definitely not. Safin was clearly the most talented young player in the world. When he was on, and he could be on, there was no one who could touch him. But he beat himself, arguing with the umpires left and right and just mentally blowing up on the court. It was almost painful.
Still, based on pure talent alone, he made the finals of the Australian Open in 2002 and 2004.
The 2004 one was the most shocking, as he entered ranked 86th in the world. He beat top-ranked Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals in five sets, somehow serving one more ace than Roddick in the match. Roddick, of course, holds the record for the fastest serve ever recorded. And in the semifinals he took care of Agassi, somehow getting 33 serves by the American return wizard. He was defeated by Roger Federer in the finals, but this was not the last we'd hear of Safin.
No doubt the 2005 Australian Open was Safin's greatest triumph. He entered ranked fourth, but an early exit could see him drop clear out of the top 15.
In the semifinals, Roger Federer took a two set to one lead, but Safin fought back and defeated him 9-7 in the fifth set. It still is the last time a healthy Roger Federer lost to anyone but Rafael Nadal in a grand slam.
That bears repeating: Roger Federer has not lost in the last 12 slams in which he was healthy to anyone but Rafael Nadal since losing to Marat Safin in the semifinals of the 2005 Australian Open. It also should be mentioned that nobody was that shocked when Safin won that match. Only with the tailspin that's occurred for Safin since then does this match raise eyebrows.
Then in the finals, Marat Safin won his first grand slam in more than four years, defeating home favorite Lleyton Hewitt in a convincing four sets.
Safin has not won an ATP-level tournament of any calibre since then. No grand slams, no Masters Series shields, no regular tournaments in more than three years.
In case you were wondering, Federer has won 32 titles since then.
Entering Wimbledon this year, Safin's ranking had plummeted to 75 and with a second round meeting with Novak Djokovic, nobody expected him to be able to improve it. A third-ranked Djokovic who with a title would move to number two in the world against a moribund Safin on Safin's admitted worst surface?
But it's amazing how quickly we forget the talent that Safin possesses. He has more talent than anyone in the world: more than Roger Federer could ever dream of happening. On the rare occasion that Safin is able to overcome himself, he shows it.
And on Wednesday, we saw that greatness.
We saw what we all expected to see since he won the 2000 U.S. Open over Pete Sampras, nearly a full year before Roger Federer defeated Sampras at Wimbledon in his five set epic.
That Federer-Sampras match was supposed to be the changing of the guard at Wimbledon; the Safin-Sampras match was supposed to be the changing for the other 11 months of the tennis year.
As it turned out, Federer was the player who was more mentally capable to win, but never has he shown that he is the most talented player in the world. That honor has always belonged to Marat Safin.
And Wednesday on Centre Court at Wimbledon we saw a glimpse of what might have been. Yes, Djokovic did not play his best match, but he didn't play awful. He won barely a third of his second serves because Safin always found a way to hit a winner. Safin showed he could return any serve wherever he wanted to on the court.
The tennis we saw from Safin was brilliant. It just was. It wasn't perfect, but it didn't need to be.
Usually when the number three player in the world loses to a guy ranked outside the top 50, it's because he played poorly and his opponent played a near-flawless match. Safin definitely made his mistakes, scoffing up 21 unforced errors in the match.
But Safin showed greatness.
There he was on the most important court in tennis; there he was on his least preferred surface; there he was going against one of the best players in the world and Marat Safin thoroughly dominated every facet of the match. The scoreboard, if anything, makes his straight set win seem closer than it really was.
On Wednesday we saw greatness, and we were shocked. And after all the greatness we've come to expect, it's a relief.
Finally, after eight years of waiting, we could be poised to see Marat Safin live up to his potential. So long as he stays sane, he can win this tournament. His talent is just so unending.
If he does win this tournament, most likely by knocking off Roger Federer in the semifinals and Rafael Nadal in the finals, he may finally show that he has not wasted his talent. But I wouldn't count on it.
If they both played a perfect match, Safin would beat Federer on any surface, even on Safin's loathed and Federer's beloved grass. And nothing would be better than the chance to see it.
Unfortunately, nobody knows when Safin's greatness will show up. He could bomb out Friday and nobody would raise an eye. It's what we've become accustomed to expect.
For someone with such ability, it's a shame. It's just a crying shame. There's simply no other word with the power to describe it.