For two and a half sets, Marat Safin pawed and toyed with Pete Sampras in the manner of a cat with a wounded bird. But as he pounced to deliver the final blow, the bird abruptly woke up. And so the Australian Open crowd was treated to 90 minutes of vintage Sampras before the once invincible American finally succumbed.
It was the spectators in Rod Laver Arena who spurred him on, willing him to turn the match around. Sampras, who found himself in the unfamiliar role of the underdog after losing two sets, won the third set tiebreak and had two set points in the fourth. But Safin prevailed 6-2, 6-4, 6-7, 7-6, and he deserved to, for he played unbelievable tennis.
Unless he goes off the boil, and he is notoriously unpredictable, the ninth-seeded Russian should win the singles title on Sunday – the day he turns 22. On present form, he is unbeatable, full of the confidence that saw him crowned US Open champion in 2000. Asked how he rated his chances of success, he said: "They're growing from day to day."
Safin, who plays South Africa's Wayne Ferreira in the quarter-finals, said: "It was tough today. I was a little bit down after the third set, but I stayed there and fought. I didn't want to play a fifth set because you never know what can happen against Pete. I'm looking forward to playing Wayne, and then we'll see." It was Sampras whom he beat in the final at Flushing Meadow, eliciting much rumination about the changing of the guard. The 30-year-old American has hung in, although he has not won a Grand Slam since Wimbledon 2000. Yesterday – or rather this morning, for the match at Melbourne Park ended at 12.25am – he rued denying himself the chance of a fifth set.
"It's disappointing, because the longer the match was going on, the more the momentum was going my way," he said. "I felt pretty good. I felt that my legs were good. I felt like I could have gone on all night." The 13-time Grand Slam champion got off, as he acknowledged, to an abysmal start, double-faulting to give Safin a break of serve in the opening game and ceding another break in the third. Clearly intimidated, he cowered behind the baseline, his serve a shadow of its customary self.
As Safin raced ahead in the second set, the normally undemonstrative Sampras gazed at his racket in search of answers and argued repeatedly with the umpire, glaring – hands on hips – at the offending white lines. When one spectator yelled "yes!" after he faulted on a first serve, he marched up to the stands and demanded an apology.
The crowd loved it. "Come on Pete! You can do it! Dig deep, Pete!" they urged him. Two hours into the match, the No 8 seed dug and found. At 3-4 in the third set, a break down, he broke the Russian's serve for the first time, engineering a live-or-die tiebreak. He survived.
Safin, finding himself in an unexpected fourth set, moved down a couple of gears, while Sampras went to the net and began working his magic. Both men saved break points, neither could dominate and even the tiebreak switched this way and that before the younger man finally resolved matters with a sensational forehand.
While the American gave ample credit to the quality of his opponent's game, he declared himself not too down-hearted. "I haven't stopped believing in myself," he said. "It was a tough one to lose because I thought I had a great chance, but I'm going to keep on fighting. I've never doubted that there's a lot more to come from me." In the other quarter-final of the top half of the draw, Marcelo Rios of Chile will play Germany's Tommy Haas.
Rios, a former world No 1 who has shone in Melbourne, beat Nicolas Lapentti 7-5, 6-1, 6-4, while the seventh-seeded Haas had to save a match point against Switzerland's Roger Federer, the No 11 seed, before triumphing 7-6, 4-6, 3-6, 6-4, 8-6. Ferreira's 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 9-7 defeat of Spain's Albert Costa was another marathon.
In the women's competition, the seventh-ranked Amelie Mauresmo of France looked briefly in danger of being felled by the curse of the seeds, but rallied to beat Germany's Marlene Weingartner 6-0, 4-6, 7-5. Jennifer Capriati, the defending champion, had a tight second set against Italy's Rita Grande before winning 6-3, 7-6.
Justine Henin, the No 6 seed, and Kim Clijsters, the No 4, will meet in an all-Belgian quarter-final after defeating Russia's Elena Dementieva and Janette Husavora of the Czech Republic respectively. Capriati and Mauresmo will play each other in the quarters.Reuse content