Safin finds some peace of mind on way to face-off with Federer

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The Independent Online

Marat Safin blasted his way into the third round in clinical fashion yesterday, reeling off three straight sets against the former finalist Mark Philippoussis despite his dodgy left knee.

It was almost impossible to distinguish this Marat Safin from the one who capitulated so feebly to his compatriot Dmitry Tursunov in the first round on Court Two last year, then moaned so prodigiously in the interview room afterwards. Not because his hair is much shaggier and his racket-breaking routines appear to be a thing of the past, but because he now believes in himself on grass.

Yesterday, it was not Safin doing the collapsing but the net, which succumbed to the relentless battering of two of the game's biggest hitters three games into the second set.

"I've been here a long time, since 1977, and I watched on TV as a kid," John McEnroe said in the TV commentary box, "and I've never seen that happen."

Five minutes later a replacement arrived, and with it a new Marat Safin, who proceeded to a 7-6, 7-6, 6-4, victory in 2hr 23min. He even seemed to be enjoying himself.

Safin conceded afterwards that he may have been hasty in his condemnation of the Championships. The flash of inspiration which could prove to have changed the course of his career came to the Australian Open champion during the grass-court tournament in Halle last week, when he reached the final against Roger Federer.

"All of a sudden I really felt comfortable," the Russian said. "It came to me and I felt pretty good. There's a lot of things in life we don't know why they are coming at an exact moment. It's just coming. I don't know how to explain it."

After Paradorn Srichaphan and Philippoussis will come a seasoned grass-court campaigner by the name of Feliciano Lopez, followed in theory by Lleyton Hewitt and Roger Federer before a place in the final beckons. But Safin readily accepts his lot.

"I probably deserve it because in the past I had easy ones and couldn't even make it past the first round," he said.

Federer knows from his recent meeting with Safin in the final of the warm-up event in Halle that the Russian could be a dangerous opponent. The Swiss player ran the rule over his potential semi-final opponents yesterday after extending his winning streak on grass to 31 matches here.

Federer struggled to find his rhythm in the first two sets against Ivo Minar but eventually eased to a 6-4, 6-4, 6-1 victory in 1hr 22min on Court One. The defending champion looks to have a relatively easy draw through to the latter stages and admitted he had been keeping an eye on the form of Hewitt and Safin.

"I had a tough match against [Safin] in Halle, he showed how good he can play on grass," the top seed said. "I think he's got a really tough draw but he's beaten two really good players in three sets so he can definitely keep it up. He's got a big game. On the grass he just hasn't shown what he can do yet. Maybe it's a good year for him. I think he's more relaxed because of his knee injury. If he loses, I guess it's because of the knee, if he wins it's sort of a surprise. So he's playing pretty relaxed and that maybe helps him not to get too frustrated."

Hewitt has been out of the game for much of the season due to injury but Federer knows the 2002 champion - the only other former winner in the draw - would also be a tough opponent.

"He hasn't played many tournaments but if we get through it means we're both in good shape," he said. "Once he's into the semis it doesn't really matter how much he played before."

Hewitt fired his way into the third round yesterday with a workmanlike 6-2, 7-5, 3-6, 6-3 win over Jan Hernych. The Australian, better known for his baseline tenacity, hit 15 aces past the Czech player. The 2002 champion next faces Justin Gimelstob after the American beat the Olympic champion Nicolas Massu of Chile, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6, 7-6.

Earlier in the day it took a moment of madness from his young Czech opponent to help Federer take the first set, Minar more than holding his own from the back of the court until bizarrely attempting two consecutive drop shots. Both landed half-way up the net and gave Federer his first break-point, and although Minar got back to deuce, a wide backhand two points later gave Federer the set 6-4.

"I guess he was a little bit confused and felt the pressure a little bit," Federer said. "He came up with some weird stuff. It was definitely bad shot selection."

All the statistics had pointed to an easy win for Federer against a player who only made his Grand Slam debut on Monday. It was also only Minar's sixth event at this level but the 21-year-old was forcing Federer to work much harder than expected.

The world No 1 had to save two break points in the seventh game - one with a forehand which landed right on the baseline - before breaking Minar's serve in the 10th to take the set 6-4 and a two-set lead.

That seemed to break Minar's resistance and Federer quickly broke serve at the start of the third set to race into a 3-0 lead. A double fault then gifted Federer a second break and he wrapped up the match.

"He didn't give me much chance early in the first and second sets," Federer added. "When I had a little opening I thought I could have done better. I knew that if I just stayed tough he's going to make some shots he shouldn't do, like the drop shots, so I just hung in there and was hoping for those moments."

Yesterday at Wimbledon

o Lleyton Hewitt is not at his best but beats Jan Hernych in four sets

o Svetlana Kuznetsova struggles to beat Indian teenager Sania Mirza Marat

o Safin wins the big-serving duel with Mark Philippoussis

o The defending champion Roger Federer cruises to straight sets win