Fine line between great player and greatness

PARIS -- Marat Safin, at 27, still cuts a relatively dashing figure. Think D'Artagnan a few swashes short of a buckle.

The strapping Russian, once ranked No. 1 in the world, is now No. 25, behind lesser lights like Jarkko Nieminen and Dmitry Tursunov. Crow's feet frame his brown eyes and his left knee complains on a daily basis. And yet, he has won more matches this year than he has lost, which counts for something.

Seven autumns ago, for two weeks, there was no one better in the world. Just 20 years old, Safin ripped through the draw at the 2000 U.S. Open and obliterated Pete Sampras in a straight-sets final swollen with promise.

"Yeah, well, it's been such [a] long time ago, so I even forgot about how it feels," Safin said Sunday. "It's really a different stage of my career. I'm not 20 years old.

"I've been through a lot of ups and downs, difficult moments."

Safin did what he was supposed to do, dispatching Spain's Fernando Vicente 6-1, 6-3, 6-1. Safin's efficiency left his the first -- and for much of the drizzly day, the only -- match completed as the 2007 French Open began. There were times when he looked like that unconscious phenom, and others when he looked just plain weary.

The good news? Like an Oscar-winning actor, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist or a Nobel prize-winning physicist, the first sentence of Safin's résumé will always read: Grand Slam Champion. Major titles are almost solely the currency by which greatness is measured.

"It puts you in history," said U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe. "It is history. It's something you carry for the rest of your career -- for better or for worse. It follows you."

McEnroe never managed to win a Grand Slam singles title, but his brother John won seven, a number that places him somewhere between Andre Agassi and Jimmy Connors (eight majors each) and Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg (six majors).

Here at the French Open, those champions make for a remarkably short list. Only 16 of the 256 players in the men's and women's draws -- nine men and seven women -- have won a major singles title. They have earned a collective total of 45, and most of those are in the hands of a few.

Roger Federer has won 10 Grand Slam titles in the span of five years. The rest of the men's field has 11 all told. Serena and Venus Williams have combined for 13 major victories, while the six other women on the list have won a total of 11. Justine Henin, recently divorced, won five Grand Slam singles titles as Justine Henin-Hardenne.

Like Safin, Lleyton Hewitt, Rafael Nadal, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Thomas Johansson, Andy Roddick, Gaston Gaudio and Carlos Moya can all call themselves Grand Slam champions. Moya (1998), Ferrero (2003) and Gaudio (2004) all won their only major here at Roland Garros. The rest of the players will be encouraged to learn that the Paris is the most popular venue for first-time winners. In the Open era, no fewer than 21 players earned their first crown at the French Open, more than any other Grand Slam tournament.

Why? Clay seems to be the most egalitarian of surfaces, and there are any number of clay-court specialists from Europe and South America who count the French Open as the major tournament that means the most to them. Since 1989, only three champions here have won a Grand Slam other than the French: Jim Courier, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Agassi.

"There are guys here who are much better than [Ferrero, Moya and Safin] at this stage of their careers," observed Patrick McEnroe, "but they don't have a Slam."

There are four men in the field who fit that description, athletes who have come exasperatingly close to attaining a Slam but fallen short.

No. 4 seed Nikolay Davydenko was a semifinalist here in 2005 and the 2006 U.S. Open. No. 5 seed Fernando Gonzalez lost to Federer in the final of this year's Australian Open. No. 7 Ivan Ljubicic made it to the 2006 French Open semifinals, losing to Nadal, and No. 15 seed David Nalbandian fell in the 2002 Wimbledon final (to Hewitt) and reached four semifinals in the other three Slams.

Todd Martin reached two Grand Slam finals, the 1999 U.S. Open against Andre Agassi and the 1994 Australian Open versus Pete Sampras. What would it have meant to his career to win even one of those matches?

"Hard to say," Martin wrote in an e-mail on Sunday. "But I do believe there is a significant difference in perception amongst peers, especially. There does seem to be a defining line there between champions and the rest."

Consider the case of No. 13 seed Elena Dementieva. She has reached two Grand Slam finals, the French Open and U.S. Open, both in 2004. Dementieva lost to fellow Russian Anastasia Myskina in Paris and countrywoman Svetlana Kuznetsova in New York. It must pain Dementieva that those Grand Slams were a first for both opponents. What if Myskina hadn't survived a match point against Kuznetsova (at 5-6 in the third set) in the 2004 French Open's round of 16? What if Dementieva had shown a bit more nerve in those two finals? She might be a two-time Grand Slam champion. Recent history suggests that might have been her best chance to win a major.

In 2003, a goofy 6-foot-5 club player from The Netherlands named Martin Verkerk whistled into the finals and lost to Ferrero. Today, Verkerk is popular with fans around the grounds here (he's in the draw), but he's ranked No. 717 in the world and has lost all of his eight singles matches this season. How would his life have been different if he'd beaten Ferrero? How would Ferrero's life have been different if he'd lost to Verkerk?

"Well, it's much better to win a Grand Slam at the age of 20 than not to win at all," Safin said. "So it's kind of half of the job is done because here everybody who is laying tennis wants to win a Grand Slam for their own confidence, for their own success.

"At least I did something, you know, and I won a major."

Actually, two. It wasn't nearly as memorable as his breakthrough in the 2000 U.S. Open, but Safin beat Federer in the semifinals of the 2005 Australian Open, then handled Hewitt in the final.

Think about it. There's a huge difference between being a one-time wonder and a two-time champion. Safin, Hewitt and Nadal have each won two Slams. Contrast their tennis credibility around the world with that of Andy Roddick, Thomas Johansson, Gaston Gaudio, Carlos Moya and Ferrero.

The same is true on the women's side. Before last year, Amelie Mauresmo was the best player in tennis never to have won a Slam. She struggled for 14 years before capturing the Australian Open and Wimbledon last season. Consequently, she will be remembered as a champion, not a choker. Maria Sharapova crossed over from one-hit novelty to a legacy-secure star when she won the 2006 U.S. Open. Now, she's focused on reaching Henin, Venus Williams and Martina Hingis one-for-the-thumb territory.

For Safin, nothing would complete his Grand Slam trilogy like the French Open. He was born in Moscow, but spent his formative years on the red clay in Spain.

"I love to come here," Safin said. "Great courts, good bounces, good people. It's my place."

Safin was asked if he thought he could still play at the level of a Grand Slam champion.

"I don't know when it's coming," he said, smiling. "So I need to stick around and get through a couple of rounds to get the groove. I can manage to pass two rounds and then I'm going to be dangerous, or get a little bit of confidence, and then I'll get my rhythm and timing."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.