Marat Safin is back. The tall, lugubrious Russian left no one in any doubt after an intense, gripping performance last night in which he outplayed Andy Roddick at his own game and tipped the No 1 seed out of the Australian Open.
But it was not the "old Marat", as Safin describes his younger self, who beat Roddick 2-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-7, 6-4 in a drama-laced quarter-final that lasted three hours and 23 minutes. That person would have played some brilliant tennis before getting distracted, breaking a racket or two and then storming off court to drown his sorrows in a nightclub.
The "new Marat", the one who will meet Andre Agassi in the semi-finals tomorrow, is a player who keeps his emotions in check, who runs down every ball, fights every point, is not afraid to come to the net and remains focused until the last ball is struck.
Safin spent most of last year off the circuit, nursing a wrist injury that forced him to pull out of last year's Australian Open before the third round. He did not play in another Grand Slam tournament until he arrived in Melbourne 10 days ago, and his long break was expected to be a serious hindrance.
It was fitting that the match in which the former No 1 not only made an emphatic comeback but also, perhaps, came of age happened to fall on his 24th birthday. After he shook hands with Roddick, the 14,623-strong crowd in the Rod Laver Arena stood up and sang him "Happy Birthday".
"I can't ask for anything more," said the unseeded Safin, whose ranking fell to 86 last year. "It's probably the best birthday I've ever had. I'm back. That's the most important thing." Roddick, who seemed unstoppable before last night and had not dropped a set in earlier rounds, was gracious in defeat. The 21-year-old American, who will lose his No 1 ranking later this week, applauded several of Safin's winners. Afterwards he cracked jokes and said there were lessons to draw from the encounter. He has done some growing up too.
"It's a little disappointing, but he played great, so we just have to suck it up and give credit to him," said Roddick. "I've got 11 months to try to get the No 1 back."
He could easily have been the victor in a closely fought match. Safin made a slow start and, after losing the first set, called for the trainer to treat an abductor strain. He returned to court a different player: confident, aggressive, running Roddick around court and forcing him into one error after another.
For the first time in the tournament, the American's serve was under pressure and its owner seriously rattled. "Terrible!" the US Open champion shouted at himself, infuriated by one mistake. "Direction!" he berated himself after another. Safin broke twice and, on set point, hit a forehand that landed right next to Roddick. The latter did not even try to return it.
The Russian was in command in the third set, sprinting around court like a demon, ripping the ball cross-court and sending sliced volleys way out of reach. Roddick's coach, Brad Gilbert, bit his nails in the stand. Then, as the two men battled grimly for dominance in the fourth set, the old Marat returned.
With the American 2-1 down in the fourth set and facing a break point, Safin tumbled as he lunged to reach a backhand, then got up like a flash but just missed a forehand passing him on the other flank. There were no more break points in that set and, when it came to the tie-break, the 6ft 5in right-hander gave it to Roddick 7-0. Safin said he had been haunted by the missed opportunity. "It really bothered me, it really hurt me, because it cost me so much to win the two sets," he said.
In the fifth set, though, he did not give up; he slowed down. Finding himself with two break points at 4-4, he played each one carefully and was rewarded with a break. Now he was serving for the match. He was nervous and suddenly Roddick had two break points. Safin saved them. Roddick put his racket in his mouth and chewed it. Now match point. The Russian snapped a forehand volley over the net for victory.
Safin beat Pete Sampras to win the 2000 US Open at the age of 20, but the closest he has come to another Grand Slam title was losing to Thomas Johansson in the Australian Open final in 2002. After playing five long matches en route to the semis, he will face an Agassi who has spent less than half his time on court. The defending champion played barely one set yesterday before his quarter-final opponent, Sebastien Grosjean, retired injured. "I'll have to be really fresh against Andre," said Safin. "I will try to make my best tennis and whatever happens, happens."
Instead of the usual bevy of blondes, it was Safin's mother and former coach, Rausa Islanova, who was cheering him on last night. But the old Marat has not completely vanished. Asked how he planned to prepare for the semi-final, Safin said he would have a good sleep, a massage, "and some beers for the muscles to relax - and for myself also".Reuse content