Safin birthday finale

January 22, 2002

RUSSIAN firebrand Marat Safin last night slapped a down-payment on an Australian Open birthday present for himself when he calmed himself down in time to inflict a four-set defeat of Pete Sampras.

Safin played cyclonic tennis for two-and-a-half sets and regained concentration lost over a series of linecall disputes to fend off a game Sampras 6-2 6-4 6-7 (5-7) 7-6 (10-8) in a scintillating fourth set tiebreak.

The Russian, who turns 22 on men's singles final day on Sunday, is the only man in the quarter-final lineup to have won a Grand Slam title from the eight who started out at Melbourne Park a week earlier.

After leaving the Open favourite helpless for much of a testy and engrossing match, the biggest concern for Safin now is that he has to hold his form and temperament for three more matches to win his second major title.

When an aggrieved Safin dropped his racquet to the ground in a fourth set whinge over a correct linecall, umpire Jorge Dias said: "You have to stop complaining."

The moody Russian had earlier been fined ($US1000) for telling umpire Norm Chryst he was "f... in the head" in a Saturday tantrum.

Both players aired repeated grievances over linecalls and Sampras had traded sharp, angry words with a spectator who had chipped the American when he had sought an overrule when down 2-4 in the second set.

Dias called out to Sampras during his retort to the spectator, urging him to resume the match.

The 194cm Safin's quarter-final opponent is South African veteran Wayne Ferriera, ranked 59th.

It was a mighty effort by Sampras, 30, in view of the seven hours and 51 minutes it had taken him to win his first three matches, including his five-set win over Nicolas Escude on Saturday night.

Sampras will rue a break point he could not convert at 5-all in the fourth set, when he had control of a searching rally and blew a forehand over the sideline.

With both players on edge, with justification, at some of the linecalls, the dual Australian Open champion netted a forehand volley when he led 4-2 in the fourth set tiebreak.

Safin saved two set points held by Sampras in the tiebreak with deep backhands of extraordinary composure.

On his second match point, the Russian stretched wide for a forehand passing shot and sunk to the court in ecstasy.

Broken in his first two service games and treated for blisters on both feet, Sampras must have felt he was trapped in a re-run of Safin's astonishing win in their 2000 US Open final.

Summoning himself for one last hell-for-leather net assault when Safin had been a service break ahead at 4-3 in the third set, Sampras broke the Russian's serve for the first time.

As Safin's first serve percentage dipped to a perilous 40 percent, his growing nervousness was clear when he argued heatedly with Dias over a linecall as Sampras edge a third set tiebreak.

A week after Andre Agassi, one half of the the great double act of American men's tennis, departed Melbourne amid doubts whether he would play another Australian Open, similar concerns will pursue his greatest rival.

Swiss youngster Roger Federer, who had been second favourite behind Sampras at the start of another dramatic day of men's matches, was beaten 7-6 (7-3) 4-6 3-6 6-4 8-6 by German Tommy Haas, seeded seventh and the highest-ranked player left in contention.

Five years after Sampras won his last Grand Slam title away from Wimbledon, he was left to devote his next five months to a bid for an eighth title at All England club пїЅ the only surface now forgiving enough on his body to give him a realistic chance.

Later Safin lauded Sampras's fighting abilities.

"It was a great comeback from Pete. I was all the time under pressure, but I deserved to win," Safin said.

Safin made light of his outburts against Dias and the linespeople.

"It's a game. Everyobody has to understand everybody wants to win," he said.

"Pete is discussing his points. I think it's normal."

Sampras said Safin could be "a little fragile mentally", but he has a lot of talent and power.

"The crowd helped get me into the match and I was one point away from taking it into a fifth set. I was maybe a bit conservative on a forehand on one of the (fourth set) points," he said.