Cyclone Safin Blows Past Pete in Four

Monday, 21 January, 2002

Master blaster Marat Safin was the last man into the 2002 Australian Open quarter finals, after a gripping 6-2 6-4 6-7(5) 7-6(8) victory over Pete Sampras on Rod Laver Arena, Monday night.

This was billed as a battle of heavyweights, as Safin and Sampras were the only Grand Slam champions. But for the first two sets, it appeared Pete was fighting way, way above his weight. The 193cm Safin intimidated Sampras with a fearsome first serve, which the American fended off his chin on a few occasions. The Russian also tore into Sampras at the net with passing shots of terrifying pace. Even more impressive than Safin's gob-smacking power was his composure and the desperation with which he chased down every ball, even diving at the baseline a few times after Sampras volleys.

As Cyclone Safin blew through to 6-2 6-4 3-1, Sampras, the winner of a record 13 Grand Slams, was helpless. It was reminiscent of the straight-sets drubbing Pete had copped in the 2000 US Open final against the Russian. He'd won just a handful of points at the net. At the change of ends, he studied his blistered feet. Sampras even had uncharacteristic exchanges with a heckling fan.

The all-time great showed a lot of heart to get back in the contest. Also, the cyclone abated. At 4-3, Safin fell behind 15-40 with three loose errors. A rare missed backhand pass put Sampras back on even terms and, as Marat later reflected, changed the whole complexion of the match.

Sampras won three straight games to take the third into a tiebreak. There, he led the whole way, seizing his chances on Safin second serves to pull it out 7-5. The crowd, thrilled to see Sampras back in the hunt, erupted. Safin, growing visibly frustrated, engaged in lively discussion with the umpire. But he did little wrong in the tiebreak, apart from missing a couple of first serves.

By the fourth, Sampras had his teeth well into the match and looked increasingly dangerous. He fought back from 0-40 to hold serve in the second game, had break chances on two separate Safin games and retrieved a 0-30 deficit to take the set to another tiebreak. Both players were visibly tiring after more than three hours on court, going blow for desperate blow like heavyweights in the final round.

Leading 4-2 in the tiebreak, Sampras dumped an achievable forehand volley into the net. The look of anguish said it all. He dropped a set point at 6-5 on Safin's serve, overcame a match point with a courageous net raid, then saw another set point go begging as Safin hit a brave double-fisted backhand for a winner. On his second match point on the Sampras serve, Safin charged across court and nailed a desperate forehand pass down the line at full stretch.

"Tough one to lose," said a subdued Sampras. "I felt like the momentum was going my way and the crowd definitely got me more into the match. I was one point away from tying it all up there (in the fourth set tiebreak). I played the match points a little bit conservatively. But I've gotta give him credit. He played phenomenal the first couple of sets - it reminded me of the (US) Open final a couple of years ago. When he gets going mentally, he's one of the best out there. Mentally he can be a little fragile but today he was strong. He kept his composure when he needed to and played a great match."

Agreed Safin: " I was tough today. I stayed there. I fought. I didn't expect I could put the forehand down the line (on the final point). And I made it." The motivation as he made that final lunge?: "You never want to play fifth set against Pete. I saw him for (over) three hours - it's enough for me. He's too big, too dangerous."

Safin next faces South African veteran Wayne Ferreira, who overcame Albert Costa 9-7 in the fifth set. "Great player, very experienced, very talented," Safin says. "Definitely it's going to be very tough." But Safin enters the quarter finals with the freshest legs, having conceded just one set thus far. He is also the only man in the field to lift a Grand Slam trophy.

The towering Russian, who turns 22 the day of the men's final, is closing on his 2000 form, when he won the US Open, six other events and came within a whisker of ending the year as No.1. The reason, says Safin, is he is more mentally together. "Everything is organised. I had great preparation for this year. Last year I got injured. I had problems and couldn't find my game. I got nervous, I was a little bit lost. So I needed to stop and for two months I just prepared for this year. I'll be dangerous this year, for sure."

After tonight's performance, who would argue?