Heavenly intervention seals Safin's comeback

Russian No 9 seed reaches final after rain delay gives him chance to recover from brink of defeat against Haas
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The Independent Online

Marat Safin made a "small mistake" before his semi-final with Tommy Haas at the Australian Open yesterday. He was coy about what it was, but it affected his capacity to handle the stifling heat and had him staggering around centre court like a toddler on new legs.

Then, like a gift from the gods, came a cooling downpour and a miraculous change in fortunes reminiscent of last year's Wimbledon semi-final in which Goran Ivanisevic beat Tim Henman after three rain-plagued days. Safin was a new man when play resumed, running through two sets in less than an hour to win 6-7, 7-6, 3-6, 6-0, 6-2.

The Russian No 9 seed, who will meet Thomas Johansson, of Sweden, in tomorrow's final here at Melbourne Park, was two sets to one down and seemingly hurtling to defeat when the heavens opened early in the fourth set. After a 50-minute rain break, Haas lost 11 of the next 13 games, groping in vain to regain his form of the previous three sets.

Safin, who lifted his arms in gratitude when play was suspended, said: "I couldn't feel my legs. Tommy was playing great and I couldn't do anything because I couldn't move, I couldn't run. If it didn't rain, I had no chance to win. I needed that break and God gave it to me."

He attributed his early problems to "a misunderstanding" with his doctor, but refused to elaborate. "I'm sorry. It's a secret," said the 21-year-old. "It's just a small mistake that we did." He said that he drank enough fluids and rejected suggestions that he had stayed out late with his entourage, an assortment of friends and attractive blonde women.

Haas, playing in only his second Grand Slam semi-final, had the opposite experience. "I was in a groove after I won the third set, but I don't think the break helped me much," he said.

"I had to start all over again and he came out on fire. It just didn't go my way after that. It was a physical thing at the end. I wanted to win just as much, but my legs weren't there. I gave it my best. I'd have liked to go a step further, but it just didn't work out." The 23-year-old from Hamburg dominated for nearly three hours, exploiting a Safin forehand error to go ahead in the first-set tie-break, which he clinched with a delicate backhand down the line.

Safin, wilting in the 35C heat, looked like a dejected giant after the seventh-seeded Haas broke serve early in the second set. After receiving a massage during a change of ends, the 6ft 4in Russian broke back and then won the tie-break from 0-3 down.

Spirits slightly restored, Safin – the 2000 US Open champion – showed streaks of brilliance in the third set, but Haas retained the upper hand. As the German served at 0-1 and 0-15 in the fourth, the rain began to fall.

When the pair – showered and changed – returned to court, it was ten degrees cooler. Safin broke serve immediately and sprinted through the set. "Wake up, Tommy!" urged one fan, but Haas – who double-faulted on match point – was unable to stop the rot.

The Russian described the 16th-seeded Johansson as "a very complete tennis player", saying: "He has everything: a great serve, a great return, a great baseline. You have to fight a lot against him and take your chances."

Johansson had to beat only two seeded players in his passage through a draw ravaged by injuries and upsets. The 26-year-old, who described himself as "not very interesting", had never been in a semi-final before Thursday and confessed to feeling nervous.

"I'm really surprised, because the way I've been playing before this tournament, I didn't expect too much," said the Swede, who trails Safin 2-1 in previous matches. "But since the first two rounds, I've been playing my best tennis ever, so I'm really happy." On Safin, he said: "He's a great player and he hits the ball very, very hard. I'm a little bit of an underdog, but I'm going to try my best."

* Anna Kournikova and Martina Hingis yesterday won their second Grand Slam doubles title with a 6-2, 6-7, 6-1 victory over Daniela Hantuchova and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, repeating their 1999 success.