Kiefer's aggression and touch has Safin in a spin

Marat Safin was beaten 7-6, 6-4 by Germany's Nicolas Kiefer in the opening round of the Dubai Championships here yesterday. Playing his first match since winning the Australian Open, the Russian No 2 seed never found his rhythm against an opponent who had also won their previous meeting at the Toronto Masters last year.

Marat Safin was beaten 7-6, 6-4 by Germany's Nicolas Kiefer in the opening round of the Dubai Championships here yesterday. Playing his first match since winning the Australian Open, the Russian No 2 seed never found his rhythm against an opponent who had also won their previous meeting at the Toronto Masters last year.

Kiefer, who often came to the net, mixed aggression and a deft touch to frustrate his opponent and although Safin served well at times it was not enough to give him any advantage.

Neither player managed to earn a break-point as the first set went to a tie-break, which Kiefer dominated. The German then maintained his momentum as the second set got underway, breaking to love as Safin struck his first double-fault of the match to fall behind 1-0.

A second double-fault allowed Kiefer to break again to lead 5-2 but he failed to serve out the match, putting a forehand wide down the line on break point. When the German served for the match a second time he was able to seal victory with his eighth ace of the match.

"I couldn't get comfortable on the court," said Safin, who refused to blame his defeat on his 10-day break after winning in Melbourne last month.

"I found the court was a little bit too fast so I couldn't really time the ball. I was missing a lot and wasn't comfortable at any moment," he said.

"He's [Kiefer] a tough one. All of a sudden he makes a couple of mistakes and he plays again and there is no rhythm at all. It's very difficult to find your game against him."

Wind had covered the court with a fine layer of sand and Kiefer said that made the surface faster, to his liking.

"I didn't expect to play this good," he said. "I've been playing well but the last two days I lost a little bit of my concentration, my focus. But I'm very happy with the way I played. I was fighting."

Kiefer said nerves also played a part as he struggled to close out the match.

"I just tried to focus on my game," he said. "I didn't serve so well in the beginning but I could get through the games and that is very important, especially against these players."

Spain's Feliciano Lopez lined up a second-round match with Andre Agassi by beating Thailand's Paradorn Srichaphan. Lopez, who took Roger Federer to three sets in the 2004 Dubai final, often looked the more eager competitor as he claimed a 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 victory.

He broke Paradorn to lead 1-0 after the Thai had led 40-0 and held four game points. Paradorn then failed to convert two more game points in the fifth as the left-handed Spaniard broke again to lead 4-1.

Lopez then failed to take advantage of a break point at the beginning of the second set. Paradorn held and his aggressive serve and volley tactics earned the only break of the set to lead 5-3 with a crosscourt forehand that clipped the net cord.

Lopez now faces Agassi with the knowledge that when they last met in 2002, the Spaniard played the match of his life before losing 7-6, 6-7, 7-5 in Madrid.

"I'm really looking forward to the match because the stadium will be full of people," Lopez said. "It's one of the matches that you always wanted to play.

The former champion Fabrice Santoro, of France, was beaten 6-3, 6-0 by sixth seeded Russian Nikolay Davydenko, and Igor Andreev, also of Russia, defeated Swiss qualifier Marco Chiudinelli 6-3, 7-5. A third Russian, Mikhail Youzhny, overcame Thomas Johansson of Sweden 7-6, 6-1.

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