Test of faith for Hewitt and Safin

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The Independent Online

Losing is simply not a prospect that Lleyton Hewitt is prepared to contemplate as he seeks to fulfil a childhood dream by winning the Australian Open today.

Losing is simply not a prospect that Lleyton Hewitt is prepared to contemplate as he seeks to fulfil a childhood dream by winning the Australian Open today.

After shrugging off a hip injury to triumph in his five-set quarter-final against David Nalbandian last week, Hewitt said he would have kept on playing if his leg had fallen off. But in tonight's showdown, which starts at 8.30am British time, he will meet Marat Safin, still buzzing from his semi-final victory over Roger Federer, the most talented player in the game.

Both men see it as their destiny to lift the trophy in Rod Laver Arena. Hewitt, who first played here as a 15-year-old qualifier, the youngest ever, yearns to be the first Australian to win the home Grand Slam for 29 years. Safin has already contested two finals here and lost, thwarted by nerves in 2002 and plain exhausted last year after back-to-back five-setters in the semis and quarters.

This year the 25-year-old Russian is confident and fit, having solved the puzzle of how to beat Federer, with the help of Peter Lundgren, the world No 1's former coach.

"I believe in destiny," said Safin, who lost to Federer in last year's final and to Thomas Johansson in 2002. "I believe that everything that happened to me before, it had to happen.

"I couldn't change if it was meant to be this way. Things are different this year. I have the experience of playing two finals, and I'm learning."

Hewitt, the No 3 seed, was not even born when Mark Edmondson won the championship in 1976. Until last week, despite winning the US Open in 2002 and Wimbledon the following year, he had never made it past the fourth round at Melbourne Park. On Friday night he kissed the Rebound Ace surface of Rod Laver Arena after overcoming Andy Roddick in four sets for a place in the final. "The Australian Open obviously means a lot to me," he said. "Part of the dream has come true. I've put myself in a position to have a crack at it."

The two men will enter the final standing five-all in their previous encounters. Last year Safin beat the 23-year-old Australian on carpet at the Paris Open, while Hewitt def-eated him on a hard court at Cincinnati. Though the latter will have the home crowd behind him, the No 4 seed is also highly popular in Australia.

Temperamentally, they could not be more different. Safin, who vanquished Pete Sampras to win the US Open in 2000, is volatile, charming and beset by self-doubt. Hewitt is prickly, and utterly self-assured. He has always been a player who arouses mixed emotions because of his on-court antics. Of late, his trademark fist-pumping has become positively grotesque.

The last time an Australian contested a Grand Slam final on home turf, Pat Cash lost to Mats Wilander in 1988. Love or hate Hewitt, hopes are high in this sports-mad nation that the outcome will be different this time.

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