Eight years of retirement from tennis and six years working as a Russian MP have done nothing to dampen the fire that has always burned inside Marat Safin. At the age of 37 the former world No 1 is in London this week to play in Champions Tennis at the Royal Albert Hall, which will be his first on-court appearance outside Asia since he entered politics in 2011.
Put it to Safin that not much has changed in tennis since he retired at the end of 2009 – when Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray occupied the top four places in the world rankings – and the former US Open and Australian Open champion does not sound too impressed.
“If Federer and Nadal are still winning I think there’s something wrong,” Safin said as he sat back in a courtside seat at the Albert Hall before the start of play on Thursday. “I don’t see any upcoming superstars today.”
You can see his point. For all the talk of new generations breaking through, Federer (now aged 36), Nadal (31), Djokovic (30), Murray (30) and Stan Wawrinka (32) have won 49 of the 51 Grand Slam tournaments that have been played since Safin won the Australian Open in 2005. Juan Martin del Potro and Marin Cilic have been the only interlopers.
“I’m not saying that our times were the best, but when I was growing up, players were winning ATP tournaments at 16, 17, 18,” Safin said. “Now players are only just starting to be pros at the age of 25. I don’t know why that is.
“Players used to retire by the time they got to 30. At 32 you were a dinosaur. Now you see players who are still running at the age of 38. The upcoming young guys just aren’t at a high enough level. If you can still manage to run at the age of 38 and still be No 1 in the world, it means there must be something wrong with the other players.”
What about the young Russians Andrey Rublev, Karen Khachanov and Daniil Medvedev, who have all made significant breakthroughs in the last year or two?
“They’re talented, but to go from being a talented player to a top 10 player is like going from here to the moon,” Safin said. “It needs a lot of work and it’s not just about hitting the ball on the court. You have to do work off the court. There’s the psychology, strategy, tactics. They need to work a lot because they have a lot of ups and downs. Rublev, Khachanov – they win one tournament and then they don’t win a match for six months.”
There are some young players Safin admires – he singles out Nick Kyrgios – but the Russian questions how far they might go in the sport. “If you want to be a really good pro you need to be beating Nadal and Federer now,” he said. “Look at Murray and Djokovic. They were beating the top players when they were 19 or 20, but you just don’t see that from the younger players today.”
He added: “Federer and Nadal are great players but they’re getting older. No matter how much you work in the gym, it becomes harder and harder to recover match after match. Age catches up with you.”
Safin, who will play his opening match against Xavier Malisse on Friday, looks in good shape considering the years he spent away from tennis. He has been working harder on his fitness since stepping down as an MP this summer and recently spent time training with his sister, Dinara Safina, another former world No 1, in Monte Carlo.
“We decided to do fitness and tennis together, just like the good old days,” Safin said. “We wanted to see how long we could manage that. We did 10 days and it was fun. It was basically meditation – concentrating on what you were doing but only on that. Because otherwise you have too many thoughts in the head and it gets tiring.”
After Safin was elected to the Duma as a representative of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party in 2011, almost the only time he found for tennis was when he played in the International Premier Tennis League in Asia.
“I took some years off tennis because I got a bit burned-out in the head,” Safin said. “I had too much tennis in my life so I decided to quit a little bit. Now, slowly, I’m starting to enjoy it again. It helps you to keep your body in good shape. As you get older that’s important.
“I let myself go a bit. A couple of years ago I was a bit overweight. In my job I was sitting down all the time and I had no time to do any exercise. But then I started to play ice hockey twice a week and I also started running every day.”
Safin is hoping to play more tennis next year and would eventually like to coach, though he insists he is not ready for that yet.
“I also want to start my own business, but not in tennis,” he added. “I’ve got some thoughts about that and I’m getting some people together and then we’ll start. I couldn’t do it while I was a government official. Now my hands are freer. That’s why I want to travel, play tennis and do business.”
What was the best part of being an MP? “I liked having to think outside of the box,” he said. “Once you’ve been a tennis player, to then dedicate yourself to a completely different profession, especially working as a government official, that’s a big change. I took a chance and I’m happy about it. I know how the system works. I got so much information and knowledge that I would not have got from anyone else.”
Did tennis help to prepare him for life as an MP? “Yes, because it gives you mental toughness,” Safin said. “It’s very important to start to think from scratch. If you’ve been a ‘superstar’ tennis player and you start to do something else and you think you’re still a tennis player, you’re in big trouble. You need to take your ego away and start from zero.”
Champions Tennis at the Royal Albert Hall continues until Sunday 3 December