Safin shows commitment to green party

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The Independent Online

You could hear a net drop yesterday when Marat Safin announced to the Centre Court crowd and - more importantly - to himself that he really can play on grass.

Although the Russian fifth seed only broke serve once in advancing to the third round of the men's singles with a 7-6, 7-6, 6-4 win against Mark Philippoussis, of Australia, the 2003 runner-up, he displayed traditional lawn-tennis skills adapted to the demands of the modern power game.

The irony was that Safin was preparing to serve, having lost a point by playing one of the softest shots in the open era, tapping a forehand half-volley into the net at 2-1, 15-15 in the second set, when the net slowly fell to the floor, as if concussed by the earlier bombardment.

Nets have been known to fall down before, even on Centre Court at Wimbledon, the world's most prestigious tournament - but not of their own volition.

Yvon Petra, of France, broke a net cord cable with a serve on Centre Court en route to winning the men's singles title in 1946 - though the cable was rusted, having been around prior to the Second World War.

Play yesterday was delayed for about four minutes while the ground staff assembled a replacement net, and then the battle continued. By this time Safin had already survived what proved to be his biggest crisis of the match, salvaging three set points when serving at 4-5, 0-40, in the opening set.

Philippoussis, who created the opportunities with a spectacular forehand drive down the line, then helped his opponent by hitting a forehand long on the first, missing a backhand on the second, and netting a return on the third. Safin then delivered consecutive aces, the second at 140 mph.

Safin went on to win the subsequent tie-break, 7-4, after 51 minutes. Philippoussis then took an injury time-out for treatment to a damaged ankle ligament. The Australian had two break points in the opening game of the second set, and played some beautiful tennis, without much reward, before also losing the second-set tie-break, 7-4.

After denying Safin a break point until the seventh game of the third set, Philippoussis was broken to 3-4, and an entertaining match was as good as over.

Safin has spent most of his career complaining that his game was not made for Wimbledon, or vice versa. Even Stefan Edberg's coach, Tony Pickard, could not persuade him otherwise when they worked together during one of the Muscovite's early visits.

So what changed to convert Safin into a member of the green party? Competing at the Halle grass-court tournament in Germany two weeks ago helped, even though he lost to Roger Federer in the final, and he is managing to nurse a knee injury without suffering too much pain.

"I passed through some really difficult times on grass during the seven years of my career," he said. "I wasn't comfortable on the surface until I played in Halle. I beat some tough players there, and I felt comfortable moving, which is one of the most important things.

"You have to serve well, and find you are able to return. All of a sudden, all this came to me and I felt pretty good."

Though ruthless in the execution of his game, Safin could sympathise with the 28-year-old Philippoussis, who came to SW19 with a wild card and hope.

"If you follow Mark's story for the past five years, he's had so many bad injuries. When that happens, it's difficult to find your game, to build you confidence, I felt in the third set he couldn't really move to the sides. That's how I managed to break, actually."

Federer continued to play with the authority of the title holder for the past two years, doing enough to advance to the third round with a 6-4, 6-4, 6-1 win against Ivo Minar, of the Czech Republic.

"I played all right," the 23-year-old Swiss said. "I hung in there, waiting for my chances. He was tough from the baseline, and came up with some good shots."

Federer said he was not surprised that Safin has come to terms with grass courts. "I think he's more relaxed because of the knee [injury]," he said. "I got the impression when we played the final in Halle that if he loses, it's because of the knee. So he just plays. That probably helps him, especially on the grass, not to get too frustrated."

Lleyton Hewitt, the 2002 champion, had a more difficult afternoon negotiating his way past Jan Hernych, of the Czech Republic, 6-2, 7-5, 3-6, 6-3. "To get a tough four-set match under my belt is going to hold me in better stead for the longer I go in the tournament," Hewitt said.

Gaël Monfils, of France, last year's boys' singles champion, advanced to the third round of the main draw yesterday with a 6-3, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 win against Dominik Hrbaty, of Slovakia, the 22nd seed.