Safin slain by inner demons and Lopez's intelligence

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The Independent Online

The forecasters do not get much wrong these days. For a while a storm threatened to erupt here yesterday, but it quickly blew itself out and calm was restored.

The weather was not bad either, at least in the early part of the afternoon. After the first hour and three-quarters of play on Court One, blue skies had replaced the menacing wind and grey clouds that had matched the mood of Marat Safin, who lost 6-4, 7-6, 6-3 to Feliciano Lopez. The Spanish left-hander played beautifully, taking full advantage of the No 5 seed's anger and frustration.

When Safin erupts, think of Etna or Vesuvius. Berating umpires and smashing rackets are his favoured modes of release, though he has also been known to rip his shirt to pieces and at last year's French Open he dropped his shorts. However, after conquering his aversion to grass, it had seemed in recent weeks that the lava flows were retreating.

In the fourth game, however, the racket-throwing began, after Lopez had broken the 25-year-old Russian's serve for the first time. Three games later, when the crowd started laughing as Safin screamed in frustration after putting a return into the net, one recalled a moment from Fawlty Towers, when O'Reilly the builder found Sybil's anger at his shoddy work amusing. "Oh no, please don't laugh," Basil pleaded with O'Reilly, knowing it would provoke an immediate physical and verbal assault from his wife.

The umpire, Damian Steiner, might have made a similar request to the crowd. Sure enough, Safin exploded four points later, after he had hit the ball long. The Russian smashed a ball on to the roof and was given an official warning for ball abuse by Steiner.

However, while Safin remained a picture of pent-up anger throughout, his temper held. There were glares at line judges and further exchanges with Steiner, but the Australian Open champion vented most of his ire on himself, particularly over his failure to cope with Lopez's consistently well-directed and potent serve.

The Spaniard, 23, is an exception to the rule in his homeland in that dusty clay courts are not his favoured domain. He learnt the game on hard courts in Madrid and has a good record at Wimbledon, having never lost before the third round in his four appearances. His year-end ranking has steadily improved and he is now the world No 33.

Not that there had been anything in his recent form to suggest he was on the brink of the biggest win of his career. He had won two matches in a row only once since February and in the first round here needed five sets to beat Bjorn Phau, the world No 103. Britain's David Sherwood provided his next scalp.

Safin, meanwhile, had been finally finding his feet on grass, 12 months after expressing his disgust at his failure to come to terms with the surface when he was knocked out of Wimbledon's first round by a fellow Russian, Dmitry Tursunov, Henman's conqueror this year. Having reached the final in Halle, where he took Roger Federer to three sets, Safin won with such style against Mark Philippoussis in the second round here that there was even talk of his adding a Wimbledon crown to his Australian and US titles.

However, Safin never looked comfortable against Lopez, who was inspired by his early break. He played a clever game, mixing a bold, attacking approach with delicate drop shots which often made the Russian look sluggish.

The second set was very tight, with no break points, and the contest turned when Lopez played the shot of the match on the first point of the tie-break, stepping in to meet Safin's 127mph first serve with a thumping backhand winner. A sweet drop shot completed the set and a break in the sixth game of the third set, thanks to three glorious backhands, put the Spaniard on the road to victory.

Safin was philosophical in defeat, saying he had trouble coping with the left-hander's game. "He played really well," Safin said. "He had no pressure whatsoever. He was playing his game. He was serving well. He took his chances."

He added: "I think the way I've been playing for the last two weeks is great. Even though I lost today and didn't play my best tennis I'm satisfied that I've finally found my game on grass. I was a little bit unlucky with the draw, but I've got nothing to complain about."

Lopez agreed that his serve had been a key factor and said he saw his victory as a great chance to make further progress. His next opponent is Croatia's Mario Ancic, who beat France's Gael Monfils yesterday. "That will be very tough," Lopez said. "He's a grass-court specialist. I just have to think about that match, nothing else."

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