On Wednesday, the Russian turned back his recent run of bad fortune to score his biggest win in nearly two years, upending No. 3 Novak Djokovic 6-4, 7-6 (7-3), 6-2 on Centre Court in the second round at Wimbledon.
"I didn't play great for a long time," Safin said. "I don't remember how does it feel."
Slowed by injuries, particularly a surgically repaired left knee, Safin hasn't been more than a dangerous floater the last two seasons. Still, he has remained a fan favorite not only because of his athletic style and devastating backhand but also for his unpredictability.
He has often used his perch at the podium in news conferences as his personal psychiatrist's couch, and he famously dropped his shorts after hitting a flashy drop-shot winner at the French Open.
If temperamental, no one doubts Safin's considerable skills.
"He's known for his, you know, mental instability in some ways," said 21-year-old Djokovic, who had reached at least the semifinals in the last five Grand Slam events but looked mentally weary in defeat. "But he's still a great player. I mean, he's still not too old. He's playing well. He's moving well. He wants to go back. You know, he wants to step it up again and try to get far in a major. This is a good way to start."
Lean times have been the rule and not the exception for the former No. 1 from Moscow, who honed his skills as a teenager in Spain.
Safin, 28, has not won a title since the 2005 Australian Open, his second major. He arrived at Wimbledon with a 10-13 record and a ranking of No. 75.
He has won two consecutive matches twice all season, and last beat a top-five player at the 2006 U.S. Open, when he upset then-No. 4 David Nalbandian of Argentina in the second round.
Grass has been a particular nemesis for the 6-4 Safin, who, despite his size, power and superior movement, has never shied away from expressing his disdain for the slick, irregular surface. After a first-round loss here in 2004, he famously declared that had hated grass and had given up practicing on it. Wimbledon remains the only major where he has failed to go beyond the quarterfinals.
"Thanks for the people to make the courts slower," Safin said when explaining how he suddenly found his groove on the lawns.
His coach, former pro Hernan Gumy of Argentina, has another explanation: All the hard work Safin has put in this season that is finally starting to pay off.
Gumy said Safin put in the hours in the gym and on the court at their training base in Valencia, Spain, in the offseason and has stayed focused all year.
They came to England four days after his second-round exit at the French Open to begin practicing on grass and didn't consider leaving even when Safin's sister, Dinara, made her first appearance in a Grand Slam final in Paris.
"He's fit, and he's worked really hard," said Gumy, who began coaching Safin about a year ago. "He is a guy who everybody knows on any given day can hit these kinds of shots."
Safin said he felt "desperate" at times this year as the losses piled up.
"You need to be really strong mentally to continue to play this game," he said.
Against Djokovic, who Safin also beat in straight sets in the opening round of the 2005 Australian Open, Gumy said his quick start was the key.
"I think Djokovic maybe was surprised and got tight," he said, adding that after all Safin has achieved, "it's even a double prize for him to win this match and feel that by working hard he can do these things."
Whether Safin has really discovered his comfort zone or merely revisited some of his brilliance from bygone days will become clearer in the rounds ahead.
His next opponent is No. 29 seed Andreas Seppi of Italy. They have never met. Although Seppi is seeded and Safin is not, Safin will be a strong favorite to move forward into the final 16, where he has not been since 2001.
Lleyton Hewitt, another two-time Grand Slam champ and former No. 1 who has suffered injuries and seen others pass him in the rankings, could empathize with how good it must feel for Safin, especially after dumping him 6-2, 6-1 in the first round of a tournament in Las Vegas this year.
"I kind of felt sorry for him on the court," recalled Hewitt, who also advanced to the third round Wednesday. "He was terrible. So for him to come out and be able to turn it around and play like this in a big tournament, yeah, it's fantastic for him, really is."