Marat Safin smashed a couple of rackets, but he did not self-destruct; rather, he "ran out of gas", as he put it in his charming runner-up speech after losing in straight sets to Roger Federer in the final of the Australian Open here yesterday.
The Russian was worn out after a gruelling fortnight that included five-set wins over the defending champion, Andre Agassi, and the top seed, Andy Roddick, in the semi-finals and quarters. "He was fresh; I wasn't," Safin said. "I was too tired to keep up with him. He's a great player. He has all the shots. He's the most complete player on the tour."
A nervous, rather subdued Federer did not parade his best tennis yesterday, but few would argue with Safin's assessment or question the Swiss player's new status as world No 1.
The 22-year-old, now the holder of two major titles, Wimbledon as well as the Australian Open, sank to his knees at the Rod Laver Arena after a forehand error by Safin had delivered him a 7-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory after two hours and 15 minutes. He did not repeat his tearful performance at the Wimbledon trophy presentation. It was not that yesterday's result was not sweet. But in the past year he has grown into the role of a Grand Slam champion.
"That Wimbledon victory for me was such a dream and such a relief," he said. "I can't really describe what I felt right then, right there. I like the way it is right now. I didn't really feel 100 per cent ready before. At Wimbledon, it was still too early. Now I feel I can win majors. Now I kind of know how it feels. It gets me all emotional inside. It's just unbelievable."
Hopes of an epic final were bolstered when Safin, playing in his first Grand Slam for a year after spending eight months of last season injured, broke Federer's serve in the third game. But the No 2 seed returned the gesture straight away and the pair exchanged another break, with Safin saving two set points at 5-6, before the tie-break ended in the Swiss man's favour.
You felt that had Safin won that first set, he might have got a second wind that could have carried him deep inside the match. Instead, his legs grew heavy and his shoulders sagged. At one point, he nearly served from the wrong half of the court. The umpire gently reminded him where he was.
The first racket bit the dust in the first set, although the Russian struck a winner with the crumpled frame before fetching a replacement. The second followed after he had double-faulted to yield a break point in the seventh game of the next set, earning him a code violation. Asked if he had ever attacked a racket so violently before, Safin replied, dismissively: "I broke one year 68 rackets."
The second set was swift, with Federer breaking for 3-2 in the fifth game. In the third set, two consecutive breaks left him serving comfortably for the championship at 5-2.
The Russian, increasingly frustrated, kept up an angry monologue as the crowd urged its favourite on. "Come on, Safin, you can do it!" shouted one spectator. "I'm trying, I'm trying," he barked back. But he managed only three aces and double-faulted five times - a miserable tally compared with his 33 aces and no double-faults during his semi-final against Agassi.
If the crowd was disappointed by the one-sided match, Safin - once he had showered and calmed down - was philosophical. It was, after all, an amazing achievement to reach a Grand Slam final immediately after returning to the circuit. The former world No 1 and 2000 US Open champion entered the tournament ranked No 86.
"I'm happy," he said. "Great two weeks. I beat great players. I don't want to push myself down because I lost a match against Federer. It's not like I played against a yo-yo, a guy who doesn't know how to play tennis. You know what I mean? I wish I could win the final, but it's OK. I can survive that moment."
There is already talk of Federer winning the Grand Slam, all four majors in a calendar year. But he knows that, with the men's field brimming with talent, it is only a distant possibility. "I feel like not many guys can do it," he said. "If there are any, I would like them to step forward, because I think it's really difficult."
Federer did succeed in winning a major without the help of a coach, having sacked Peter Lundgren last year. Pat Cash, the former Wimbledon champion turned commentator, was among those who rubbished his chances. Cash has been made to eat his words.
AUSTRALIAN OPEN: ROLL OF HONOUR
Men's singles: Roger Federer (Swit).
Women's singles: Justine Henin-Hardenne (Bel).
Men's doubles: Michael Llodra and Fabrice Santoro (Fr).
Women's doubles: Virginia Ruano Pascual (Sp) and Paola Suarez (Arg).
Mixed doubles: Nenad Zimonjic (Serb-M) and Elena Bovina (Rus).
Boys' singles: Gaël Monfils (Fr).
Girls' singles: Shahar Peer (Isr).
Boys' doubles: Brendan Evans and Scott Oudesma (US).
Girls' doubles: Sun Shang-Nen (Ch) and Chan Yung-jan (Tai).
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