Home boy's mental edge will prevail where Federer failed

Marat Safin, who beat the world No 1 in an epic semi-final, will succumb to the Australian favourite in tomorrow's men's singles' final, writes Nick Bollettieri
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The Independent Online

I believe Marat Safin edged past Roger Federer in their epic semi-final match because Roger was psychologically unsettled, but I also think Safin could lose to Lleyton Hewitt in tomorrow's final for similar reasons.

I believe Marat Safin edged past Roger Federer in their epic semi-final match because Roger was psychologically unsettled, but I also think Safin could lose to Lleyton Hewitt in tomorrow's final for similar reasons.

First, let's put Federer's defeat in context. It doesn't change his status as the world's best. He's still has all the tools to be the best ever. But no man can win every single time he plays. Nobody. As Greg Norman said a few years back, when asked to explain why he'd made a blooper at the Masters: "We're all human beings and we're all subject to human error."

Amen to that, and the world of sport would be a duller place if it wasn't so.

So why did Federer go down, albeit in an incredible, battle where it took a whole bunch of unconverted match points before he was finally broken? For my money, the decisive factor was captured in one glance that Roger shot up at the coach's box during the match. It was a glance at Safin's coach, Peter Lundgren. And who used to be Federer's coach? Lundgren.

In a tight, physical, skilful, wilful match, the margin of victory and loss always had the potential to be paper thin. And for me, somewhere in Federer's head was the notion: "Look, there's Peter, he helped make me the player I am. Now he's with the other guy, and he's making him a helluva player too."

In many years on the front line in this game, I've seen and experienced the power of the mind in sport. The psychology involved in facing an opponent who's now using your old coach is powerful. I remember after I split with Andre Agassi, I was working with Boris Becker and they met in competition. Andre shot me a glance like Roger shot at Lundgren. And then he beat the crap out of Becker. He wanted it so badly to show me.

Roger is motivated in different ways. On this occasion, I think he was unsettled, rather than riled.

How will Federer respond to defeat? I believe positively. I still think he'll win 95 per cent of the time. But everyone's gunning for him.

Everyone is being forced to raise their standards. And for tennis, that can only be a good thing. The result is matches like the semi-final: great spectacles, great rivalries.

So to Hewitt, who beat Andy Roddick yesterday to reach a Slam final on home turf. Roddick and Safin are both big servers, but just because Hewitt handled Roddick doesn't mean he'll handle Safin.

Roddick was undermined by his forehand, which went down the tubes.

However, Hewitt might well have that mental edge because he's using the circumstances at his disposal to full effect to get inside his opponents' heads. It goes without saying that he's playing well, looks fit and looks hungry. But he's also orchestrating the crowd behind him. He's cheering at opponent's mistakes, which isn't ethical but it messes with the other guy's head. The crowd - especially his core of yellow-shirted, cheerleader buddies - are responding supportively.

Every pump of his fist is another signal for more noise. The word in Melbourne is he's actually paying for those guys to be there. But heck, what's the price of a few seats for his mates when they're helping him so much?

This edge could be the key to beating Safin, a normally fragile mental character who opponents have relied on to break upstairs at some stage. He's matured, and not broken down in this tournament, yet.

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