Re: Safin serves up bagel in 5 set victory over Todd Martin
In a Game of Survival, Safin Outlasts Martin
By CHRISTOPHER CLAREY
Published: January 23, 2004
ELBOURNE, Australia, Friday, Jan. 23 — For long stretches of this cool and clear summer afternoon, it seemed quite plausible that James Blake's opponent in the fourth round of the Australian Open was going to be his 33-year-old fellow American, Todd Martin, instead of the younger, quicker and much more volatile Marat Safin.
Despite Martin's lengthy layoff last season, his injury-interrupted preparation this season and the weight of the years, he was often in command at Rod Laver Arena on Friday, attacking second serves with success and taking care of his own service games with professional precision. After three sets, Martin had the edge and the momentum, and Safin was using up nervous energy berating himself in Russian. Safin had even stolen a page from a sword swallower's routine, sticking the butt of his racket deep in his mouth and holding it up in the air with his teeth.
Rackets have never been Safin's friends. He shakes them; he breaks them; and he has the strength and perfectionist tendencies to break quite a few. But at the end he put the instrument of his own torture to good use, taking the last two sets of this high-quality third-round match to win, 7-5, 1-6, 4-6, 6-0, 7-5.
"He just started letting the ball fly more, and boy, when that happens, it's tough," said Martin, who did not get a break point on Safin's serve in the final two sets.
When Safin got his break point in the final game of the match, he blasted a backhand return crosscourt that the charging Martin lunged for but could not handle.
Although he was once ranked No. 1 in the world and won the 2000 United States Open in rare style, Safin has been waiting for nearly two years to get back to the Round of 16 at a Grand Slam event. Injuries ruined his 2003 season, and his world ranking has slipped to 86, an unsightly number for a 23-year-old with a world of talent.
"I was not scared about the numbers; I was scared about my game," Safin said. "I was afraid of coming back on the Tour and not being able to win matches."
He has won three in a row, but he may not be the hungriest young man on the court in the fourth round. Blake, who beat the French qualifier Olivier Patience, 6-1, 6-3, 6-2, on Friday, did not have as painful a season in 2003 as Safin, but he was dissatisfied with his performance and his slippage in the ranking from a high of 22 to 37 by the end of the year.
"I wasn't thinking about having the same kind of hunger that got me there," he said. "I was trying to play a lot not to lose. That kind of came back and bit me. I know now that to execute the way I want and to keep getting better, improving my ranking, improving my tennis, I need just to play the way that got me there in the first place."