Safin overcomes mental hurdle to spoil Hewitt's centenary party

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The Independent Online

Marat Safin's brain is his worst enemy. When he thinks too deeply, he cannot play tennis. When he switches off and lets his magnificent game unfold, he can beat anyone - including the once invincible Roger Federer and, yesterday, Lleyton Hewitt, to win the Australian Open.

Marat Safin's brain is his worst enemy. When he thinks too deeply, he cannot play tennis. When he switches off and lets his magnificent game unfold, he can beat anyone - including the once invincible Roger Federer and, yesterday, Lleyton Hewitt, to win the Australian Open.

Paralysed early on by memories of failure in two previous finals, Safin pulled himself together to extract a 1-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 triumph over the local hero, crushing the hopes of a nation in the tournament's centenary year.

The Russian No 4 seed, who had not won a Grand Slam since he defeated Pete Sampras as a precocious 20-year-old at the 2000 US Open, looked more astonished than exultant after a forehand error by Hewitt on match point.

Later, despite the solid presence of the champion's trophy, victory had still not sunk in. "It's really difficult to believe it," he said.

Frozen by nerves, Safin played an embarrassingly poor first set, and captured the second unconvincingly. But down 4-1 in the third, he suddenly woke up, rediscovering the form that propelled him to an extraordinary five-set win over Federer, the world No 1, in the semi-final. To the horror of the home crowd, Hewitt disintegrated.

The Australian, his dreams of winning his home Grand Slam evaporated, was charming in defeat. He congratulated Safin on "a hell of a tournament", telling him: "You're one of the best players in the world. You knocked off the guy who's been nearly impossible [Federer], so you thoroughly deserve it."

The tournament not only saw Federer's hegemony broken, the Swiss having won four out of the last six Grand Slams, but also set up the intriguing prospect of a new rivalry between him and Safin. The No 1 was on a 26-match winning streak before the semi-final, and appeared unassailable.

The Russian's talent has never been in doubt, but his emotional volatility makes him utterly unpredictable. That was painfully evident yesterday, as he sleepwalked through the first set, his serve broken in the second game and again in the sixth. His serve was lacklustre, the unforced errors mounted and the set was over in 24 minutes.

Safin managed to equalise at one-set all, but remained strangely subdued and lethargic. He bashed his legs as if to get them moving, smashed a racket and, during one changeover, sat morosely with his head under a towel. But early in the third set he called for the trainer to massage his thighs and, when he returned to court, was a man transformed.

His mighty serve was back on course, the winners were flowing and the No 3 seed was being wrong-footed left, right and centre. Now it was Hewitt who was frustrated. The 23-year-old earned a code violation for berating a linesman and, after losing his serve to go 4-3 down, conceded seven consecutive games.

The Russian was on fire. He broke Hewitt's serve in the opening game of the fourth set and served out the match, sealing victory on the first match point. Against Federer, he had needed seven.

Looking drained, he pumped the air just briefly before sitting down, relief his main emotion. But his coach, Peter Lundgren, who formerly worked with Federer, was ecstasy personified. The Hewitt camp, meanwhile, was stony-faced.

Hewitt, who reached his first home Grand Slam final, said he hoped to go "one step further" next time. "I'll be able to walk out with my head held high," he said. "But right at the moment I'm human and I'm disappointed."

Safin said he had been haunted by thoughts of the two previous finals, when he lost to Thomas Johansson in 2002 and Federer last year. "The first set, you couldn't really call it tennis," he said. "I didn't believe I could play that badly. I was trying to get over the nerves and deal with the pressure.

"I couldn't believe I could win and I was getting depressed. You start to really eat yourself. But then you start to be selfish and try to find a way out of there. And I found it."

Australian Open (Melbourne) Men's singles, final: M Safin (Rus) bt L Hewitt (Aus) 1-6 6-3 6-4 6-4. Women's singles, final: S Williams (US) bt L Davenport (US) 2-6 6-3 6-0.

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