Federer tames resurgent Safin as crowd enjoy early 'final'

The luck of the draw can be cruel for players and tournaments alike, but at least last night's first round match between Roger Federer and Marat Safin, the form players of the season so far, was a treat for a capacity crowd at the Dubai Duty Free Open.

The luck of the draw can be cruel for players and tournaments alike, but at least last night's first round match between Roger Federer and Marat Safin, the form players of the season so far, was a treat for a capacity crowd at the Dubai Duty Free Open.

Federer, the Swiss world No 1 and defending champion, and Safin, the imposing Russian who stands at No 2 in the ATP Champions Race, last played in the final of the Australian Open on 1 February. Federer defeated a weary Safin in three straight sets in Melbourne and beat a livelier Safin here last night, 7-6, 7-6, after an hour and 58 minutes of powerful, entertaining tennis.

Safin, still catching up with himself after his injury problems last year, is No 30 in the entry system. He took a wild card into the tournament and was unseeded - the most dangerous floater imaginable.

Colm McLoughlin, the managing director of the sponsors, Dubai Duty Free, pulled Safin's name out of the hat himself and took the positive view: "Big crowd at the start of the tournament."

McLoughlin realised he had drawn an early final - and the seeded players have not helped by crashing about his ears. Going into the third day, only Federer (1), Paradorn Srichaphan (7) and Sjeng Schalken (8) remain standing.

Thankfully, last night's showpiece was one to savour, a delightful mixture of cracking shots and mishits that some members of the audience would have recognised from their exploits on park courts.

Safin, barely able to scramble two points together in losing the opening three games, worked his way through the disappointing start to level at 3-3 and held two break points for 5-4, only for Federer to serve his way out of trouble. When the first tie-break arrived, Federer won the opening five points on his way to clinching the shoot-out, 7-2. Safin's chief contribution was a spectacular forehand drive down the line.

Although Safin was broken in the opening game of the second set, Federer's erratic serving gave him hope of a recovery. It did not happen until he cracked Federer as the Wimbledon champion served for the match at 5-4. Federer saved three break points and created his first match point, only to net a forehand under pressure. He went on to net a backhand on the fifth break point.

Federer, who served to stay in the set at 5-6, recovered from 3-1 down in the second tie-break to win it, 7-4, Safin missing a forehand on the second match point.

Guillermo Coria, the Argentinian second seed, who was defeated by the Russian Mikhail Youzhny, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, did not serve well enough to avoid joining the cull of leading players. Youzhny, ranked No 57, was pleased with the way he went for his shots rather than attempting to out-rally his speedy opponent. "If you try to stay back and hit the ball there is no chance of winning against Coria," the Russian said. "He doesn't make mistakes. He doesn't even know what a mistake is."

The 22-year-old Coria spent most of his time in the interview room answering questions about Greg Rusedski's predicament after testing positive for the banned steroid nandrolone. Coria is something of an authority on the subject of nandrolone, having been banned for seven months in 2001, protesting his innocence. Coria said he would be willing to join a protest planned by the Spanish player Alex Corretja if Rusedski is found guilty.

"I'd be happy if Rusedski is found innocent," Coria said, "because I know what he's going through. I just wish the players had supported me the way they are rallying round Rusedski."

Coria heard the result of his tribunal after 15 days. Rusedski has been waiting for more than three weeks. "It's hard when you play more than two hours," Coria said. "I think you need some kind of supplements, but today I only drink water on the court."

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