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BILL DWYRE

Marat Safin exits the desert minus his usual heat

The retiring tennis star's last appearance at Indian Wells ends not with the usual racket-smashing bang but with the whimper of an inert performance in a third-round loss.

March 18, 2009|BILL DWYRE

It was 4:52 p.m. on a broiling desert afternoon Tuesday, when Marat Safin departed the Indian Wells tennis tournament for the last time. He had become an aging horse, passed on the homestretch by a lanky colt.

Safin's last competitive moment on these premises came 1 hour 14 minutes into his third-round match, when he watched John Isner's 137-mph serve on match point catch the corner of the service box.

It was 6-4, 6-4. Game, set, match. Goodbye desert.

Instead of a volcanic explosion, there was only resignation. Safin had huffed and puffed a bit during the match, as is his way, and had even smashed his racket to the court in that last game.

But the normal fury was missing. Uncharacteristically for a Safin racket rage, it didn't even break. He picked it up and played with it. If you saw only that, you knew this was the end of something.

Quickly, he was gone, packed and out in one minute, with a final wave and a couple of scribbles on some tennis programs.

Behind him, finally, was the torture of Indian Wells, a peaceful resort in a picturesque desert that greeted him every year in an ambush of ambience.

This was his 11th straight year in this tournament. He has played in it so long that he remains among the few still around who played at the previous Hyatt Grand Champions resort just down the street.

That year, 1999, was the last time he got to the third round here. He did better than that only once, a fourth round in 2006. Of the 24 matches Safin played over the years here, he won just 13.

For this 29-year-old Russian who has announced that this will be his last year on tour, life should have been kinder here. He did, after all, win two Grand Slam tournaments and become No. 1 for a while. But his promise and talent, at Indian Wells and elsewhere, often failed to translate to results.

His opponent Tuesday, a 23-year-old who still talks a lot about his college coach in interviews, is ranked 147th, and got into the tournament only because he was given a wild card. He called playing Safin "an honor" and looked momentarily mortified when reminded he had sent Safin away from the desert for the last time.

"Sorry about that," Isner said. He also called Safin "one of the greatest players, you know, ever, really."

The ending didn't even come in the big stadium, but on Court 2. No speeches, no plaques. Call it the short goodbye.

That's probably because, as unpredictable as Safin can be, nobody quite expected him to do anything but give Isner a tennis lesson. Isner is 6 feet 9 and serves like he should from that mountaintop -- huge bombs and high bounces, rocketing from the clouds.

But first impressions are of a big puppy, still filling out his paws. So this was expected to be the grownup against the growing-up.

The weather should have been to Safin's advantage, too. He has been here so much, he knows how it can be. Tuesday was a day for lizards, a day when you can put your piece of frozen pizza in the microwave or just bring it out and set it on the chair next to you at courtside.

In the match preceding Safin-Isner, sixth-seeded Juan Martin Del Potro needed exactly two hours and a tiebreaker in the third set to advance -- Isner plays him next -- and looked like he was going to pass out just hitting the autographed tennis balls into the crowd afterward.

But Safin and Isner were never about long, draining rallies. From the start, it was bombs away, from everywhere. Fittingly, on one point, they smashed at least 15 ground strokes at each other, each harder than the previous. It ended when Isner's forehand bomb hit the baseline and Safin swung and missed.

As the crowd gasped, Safin quietly retrieved the ball, hit it to the chair umpire, who caught it on the fly, held it up for the crowd as he squeezed it almost flat and announced, "Broken ball rule. Replay the point."

It was a veteran move by a savvy Safin, the last we will see here.

In his news conference, he was asked about his highs and lows.

"It's me. It's my tennis. It's my career," he said.

And it's no more desert demons.

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bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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BNP Paribas Open

TODAY'S FEATURED MATCHES

Stadium Court (starting at 11 a.m.)

Vera Zvonareva, Russia, vs. Caroline Wozniacki, Denmark; Fernando Gonzalez, Chile, vs. Roger Federer, Switzerland; Novak Djokovic, Serbia, vs. Stanislas Wawrinka, Switzerland; Andy Roddick, U.S., vs. David Ferrer, Spain.

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Stadium Court (starting at 7:30 p.m.)

Dinara Safina, Russia, vs. Victoria Azarenka, Belarus; Rafael Nadal, Spain, vs. David Nalbandian, Argentina.

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