Safin raises his game as Nadal eyes Federer

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The Independent Online

A packed Court Central at Roland Garros gave a standing ovation to Marat Safin, and his clay-spattered opponent Juan Carlos Ferrero, at the culmination of the finest match of the tournament so far, a 7-6 7-5 1-6 7-6 third-round victory carved out in a gruelling three hours 45 minutes.

A packed Court Central at Roland Garros gave a standing ovation to Marat Safin, and his clay-spattered opponent Juan Carlos Ferrero, at the culmination of the finest match of the tournament so far, a 7-6 7-5 1-6 7-6 third-round victory carved out in a gruelling three hours 45 minutes.

Safin, so often a disappointment since capturing the US Open in 2000, has again suffered torment since winning his second Grand Slam, the Australian Open, in January. But here he was on top form to confound the recent statistics between these two former world No 1s. Ferrero had won four of their previous five matches, including three on clay, but here he was eventually battered into submission by Safin's flat-out assault in the second tiebreak.

Ferrero, handicapped by a badly blistered left foot, was never able to match that sort of power but stayed in contention for a title he won two years ago with his variations of angle and pace. This was only Safin's 10th singles win, against eight defeats, since capturing the Australian Open The opening-set tiebreak was won comfortably by Safin and he broke for a 6-5 lead in the second set, claiming a two sets to love lead with his seventh ace. Ferrero perhaps surprised himself with the ease of his winning margin in the third set, but it was back to the hard grind in the fourth, in which Safin gradually gained the upper hand.

The Russian held one break point for what would have given him a 5-3 lead, but the Spaniard escaped, watched by his new romantic interest, Maria Sharapova. However, the options were narrowing and when the second tiebreak arrived every avenue was rapidly closed. Safin opened with an ace, gained a minibreak with a smash and rounded out an overdue victory with another smash.

Having stifled French expectations by ousting their young hope Richard Gasquet, Rafael Nadal will again risk the ire of the French Open audience when he takes on the country's No 1, Sébastien Grosjean, in the fourth round this afternoon.

Nadal's reduction of Gasquet, a fellow 18-year-old who had given him a tough time in the Monte Carlo semi-finals, was executed with a professionalism bordering on the breathtaking for one so young. On his Roland Garros debut, the fourth-seeded Nadal has yet to drop a set. Gasquet, on the verge of physical collapse by the end of the second set, was reduced to lamenting that he had been made to look like a junior by someone stronger, fitter and better at the game.

Like his ability to converse in English, Nadal's game is also coming along at a healthy lick. Though his coach and uncle, Toni Nadal, is keen not to let the praise become too much and said of his nephew the other day: "For the moment I consider him a good player, not a great player," Uncle Toni is in a minority with that opinion.

The young Nadal's eye-opening maturity on things such as shot selection and strategy have attracted more and more admirers. Gasquet was undermined, and eventually overwhelmed, by Nadal's high-bouncing, topspin ground strokes to the deepest corners. As ever, Nadal walked off looking as fresh as when he sprinted on to the court.

The fact that Nadal is a left-hander, albeit a manufactured one, is what is troubling so many of his top opponents, since there has not been a lefty in the top 10 for five seasons. Roger Federer, ever the man for a challenge, says, "I think it's good [Rafael] is a lefty because it changes the dimension of the rallies, the way you play. It puts a totally different game plan in place."

Federer's new coach, Tony Roche, the second-best left-hander of his era after Rod Laver, agrees: "So many of the guys are programmed to play a certain way, so that goes right into Nadal's strength." Today will tell whether Grosjean, who possesses no big weapon but has much durability, can come up with an answer to prevent Nadal moving one step closer to the Roland Garros dream match - a Friday semi-final between Federer and Nadal on the youngster's 19th birthday.

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