Safin's swan song

Martin Rogers

This promises to be one of the more unpredictable U.S. Opens in years. But if there is one guarantee it is safe to make between now and Sept. 13, it is that Marat Safin will produce one last flurry of fireworks.

The popular Russian, who tasted glory with a championship at Flushing Meadows in 2000, will play the tournament for the final time before retiring from professional tennis at the end of the year.

Though Safin freely admits he has no chance of coming up with a dream swan song by winning the event, you can stake your last ruble that he won't go quietly.

Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and a pair of Andys – Murray and Roddick – head the list of favorites going into New York as the Big Apple gears up for its annual two-week love affair with tennis.

However, Safin will be compulsive viewing for as long as he sticks around, given his explosive personality and penchant for the dramatic.

Last week's rant at reporters who quizzed him over the validity of his sister Dinara Safina's No.1 world ranking perhaps was Safin mentally preparing for some Flushing frivolity, as he insisted critics of his sibling could "go [expletive] themselves."

"It is going to be, erm, interesting," Safin said with a wry smile, speaking recently to Yahoo! Sports. "I don't think I am going to do anything special because it is my last Grand Slam. I am not planning it. But you never know what can happen. I know I am not going to win, there is no chance. So we will just see."

Safin's career record – two Grand Slam titles and nine weeks atop the rankings – solidifies his elite status. However, it is that he is something of a throwback to an ever-distant era that has earned him the warmth of tennis followers around the globe.

His career has been a relentless riot of entertainment, from smashed rackets to extraordinary quotes to fights outside Russian night clubs to dropping his shorts during a match at the French Open.

Really, he belonged in a different time, the one where Bjorn Borg and Vitas Gerulaitis partied with supermodels and champagne before sports drinks and early nights became de rigeur for top professionals.

And if that approach cost him on the court, so be it.

"I have had a good career," the 29-year-old Safin said. "I wouldn't change much. I sometimes think about what would have happened if I had done things differently. But that wouldn't be me.

"I am happy to have competed with the best and won some Grand Slams. It is more than most people have. I have had fun, sometimes a little too much fun."

Safin, now ranked No. 58 in the world, will have the sentimentalists behind him in New York, but nowhere will he have stronger support than from his own sister.

"It has been such an inspiration for me to have him as my brother," Dinara Safina said. "He went and did it first, getting to No.1 and making a great career. I hope he does well at the U.S. Open; it would mean more to him than people think. He cares, he just shows it differently to most people."

Safin's personality will be missed in the locker room, where he is a well-liked character. He is especially close to the Russian contingent – and to world No.1 Roger Federer, with whom he has shared some classic battles.

"Everyone is going to miss Marat," Federer said. "The fans will miss him for his tennis and also for his personality. He is great to watch, a great player. The players will miss having him around, he is a great character."

It is that character that the Flushing Meadows crowd will be waiting to see for one last time. For it is entertainment they are looking for, and in that regard, Safin rarely disappoints.