The racket flew out of Marat Safin's grasp and the ball soared over James Blake's head, landing just a whisker inside the baseline. Blake leant on the net, gripping it with both hands, incredulous. Safin, who had just procured a critical service break, retrieved his racket from the edge of the court.
The Russian, who served out the match 7-6, 6-3, 6-7, 6-3 in the next game, said the racket had left his hand when it made contact with the ball as he lunged for a backhand volley at 4-3 in the fourth set.
"I thought I wouldn't get to the ball, so I just threw it," said Safin, who plays Andy Roddick tomorrow in the quarter-finals. "It was pure luck, just at the right moment. Normally it doesn't work."
Unorthodox technique aside, the former world No 1 is happy to be back on the tour after missing most of last season because of a wrist injury. Unseeded at Melbourne Park, he is regarded as a dangerous floater and is so far living up to that reputation. Blake, the world No 37, grew increasingly frustrated as Safin outwitted him at almost every turn.
The 24-year-old American was flabbergasted by the shot on break point, which followed a forehand down the line. "I'm not even sure if it was a legal shot," he said. "I've never seen an umpire make that call. Unfortunately it came on a huge point when I really should have put that forehand away."
Blake rated the odds of executing the shot as "maybe one per cent ... It's such a tough shot. Once the racket comes out of your hand, it loses so much power that to make that shot is kind of baffling."
The American put the Russian under pressure in the first two sets, but the latter stood firm, firing 12 of his 20 aces, two of them during the first set tie-break. Safin, the 2000 United States Open champion and runner-up in Melbourne in 2002, hustled through the second set but then let Blake slip past him during the third-set tie-break.
Safin, who won 145 points to Blake's 134, said he should have sewn up the three-hour, eight-minute match in the third set. "I was following him, waiting for his mistakes in the tie-breaker," he said. "Couldn't make the decision of making myself a point."
Blake, who equalled his previous best Grand Slam performance, said: "I thought maybe he'd get down a little bit after losing that third set, but he didn't. I guess he's been saying all along that he's back. Looks like he is."
The 23-year-old Russian said the break from tennis had been beneficial, giving him the space to reflect on his career. "It was really good," he said. "That's why afterwards I could find the motivation to come back." For him, each win plays its part in his rehabilitation. "I was a little scared to come back on the tour in case I wasn't able to win matches," he said. "You lose your confidence when you don't play for a long time. But once you start to play tennis again, the feelings come back."
Safin's talent and courage were never in doubt; it remains to be seen whether he has kicked the habit of drifting off to another planet at key moments during big matches.
He will need all his resources to beat Roddick, the top seed, who is in sensational form. For the 21-year-old American, yesterday's fourth-round match was as easy as one, two, three: the number of games that he dropped during his 6-1, 6-2, 6-3 win over the Dutchman Sjeng Schalken, the No 16 seed.
The US Open champion took just one hour and 19 minutes to knock out Schalken, who managed one ace to his 14. "I feel like I'm getting better each match out there," Roddick said. "That's probably the best I've hit the ball from the back of the court in a while."
Asked to name his main obstacle en route to the title, he mentioned Andre Agassi, who has won it three times in the past four years, with only injury preventing him from defending it in 2002. "There are still seven, eight guys left who have the possibility of winning here," Roddick said. "But like when Pete [Sampras] went on his big Wimbledon runs, I think it's Andre's title until someone takes it away from him."
Agassi had to save five set points in the first set of his match against Paradorn Srichaphan, who battled valiantly but went down 7-6, 6-3, 6-4. The American No 4 seed plays Sebastian Grosjean in the quarter-finals, after the French No 9 seed beat Robby Ginepri in four sets.
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