After break, Safin dominates Haas

Associated Press
Friday, January 25

MELBOURNE, Australia -- A cooling rainstorm was just what Marat Safin needed.

Saying, "I had no chance to win if it didn't rain," Safin took advantage of a 50-minute delay in the Australian Open semifinals Friday, winning 11 of the final 13 games against Tommy Haas to advance to the final against Thomas Johansson.

The 2000 U.S. Open champion, whose 22nd birthday coincides with the final, was trailing the seventh-seeded Haas two sets to one when rain forced the suspension.

With the roof of Rod Laver Arena closed and the temperature dropping from 95 degrees to 75, Safin used his booming serve the last two sets to win 6-7 (5), 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-0, 6-2.

"Thank God it started to rain," said Safin, who was leading 1-0 in the fourth set when the rain came. "I needed the break and God gave it to me."

The semifinal lasted 4 hours, 28 minutes, including the interruption. Safin's quarterfinal victory over Wayne Ferreira lasted just 28 minutes before the veteran South African quit with an abdominal strain while trailing 5-2.

The Russian admits he doesn't like the heat. He held both arms up in triumph when the semifinal was suspended.

"I didn't make any miracles," Safin said. "I just didn't give him any chance after the break. I made the break (of serve) straight away, because he wasn't warm enough. I took this chance and I started to serve better and I started to return -- I changed completely the game."

Haas agreed that the rain delay made all the difference.

"He picked up his game," Haas said of Safin. "The roof was closed, it was a bit more like an indoor game. It just didn't go my way.

"Mentally, I was totally there, (but) my legs weren't there anymore. Once you're a step late to a shot, you're not going to make them."

Added Haas, "I don't think the break helped me much. I had to start all over again and he came out on fire. That's just the way it is."

It was a good omen for Safin, who also got the benefit of rain during his winning run at the U.S. Open two years ago. He won the opening two sets of his third-round match against Sebastien Grosjean, but wilted in the heat as the Frenchman rallied to even it at two sets apiece.

He used a rain break then to shower and change socks, then returned to oust Grosjean and went on to take the title.

Before the break Friday, Safin needed a medical timeout for cramping and heat stress. He later needed treatment for blisters on his hands.

In the first set tiebreaker, a forehand volley miss that left Safin trailing 4-6. Haas then won it with a backhand down the line.

Repeating the sequence of the first set, Haas broke first in the second and then was broken back.

In the second, two double-faults by the German helped Safin make it 3-3. The ninth-seeded Russian gained a 5-3 lead in the tiebreaker with two winners and cashed in his second set point with a heavy serve.

Haas saved a break point at 2-2 in the third set with a diving forehand drop volley that left him sprawling over the Rebound Ace hardcourt. He gained the key break for 4-2 by saving two game points with backhand winners. He clinched it when Safin sent a forehand return long.

Safin got a massage and changed his socks during the rain delay. After the restart, he conceded just 11 points in the fourth set, including five after he earned three set points at 0-40 in the sixth game.

He won his opening serve in the fifth set before Haas held serve to snap a seven-game losing streak.

But the German dropped his next service game to fall behind 3-1, and never caught up.

Safin, meanwhile, improved his serve game and fired his 17th and 18th aces at 135 mph and 134 mph as he took a 4-1 lead.

He clinched it on a double-fault by Haas, whose best previous result at a Grand Slam event was a semifinal appearance here three years ago.

Safin returned from a back injury last year to make the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and the semifinals at the U.S. Open, where he lost to Pete Sampras. He reversed that loss to Sampras here.

The former world's No. 1 player had a 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (8) victory over Sampras, a 13-time Grand Slam event winner, in the fourth round to assume the favorite's role for the Australian Open.

Johansson, seeded 16th, made an unexpected run to his first Grand Slam final and benefited from a men's draw that was devoid of stars because of injuries and upsets.

The Swede, who described himself in a news conference as "not very interesting", met only two seeded players en route to the final. He beat No. 21 Younes El Aynaoui in the third round and No. 26 Jiri Novak in the semis. Novak never previously advanced beyond the fourth round at a Grand Slam.

The 26-year-old Swede, who has won six ATP tour events in eight years and had a career-high ranking of 14, admitted he was almost shaking as it took him four match points to seal his spot in the championship match.

He was helped by upsets in his half of the draw, which included No. 2 Gustavo Kuerten, No. 4 Yevgeny Kafelnikov, No. 5 Sebastien Grosjean, No. 6 Tim Henman and Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic.