Can Safin Make it a Happy Birthday?

Saturday, 26 January, 2002

It may be Marat Safin's 22nd birthday on Sunday, but he doesn't expect any presents from Thomas Johansson as both players aim to become the 55th men's singles champion of the Australian Open and take home the championship's biggest-ever prize purse of $1 million.

For the Swede, it has been a long wait to reach his first Grand Slam final - this is his 25th major championship in eight years. Until today that had yielded just two quarter final appearances at the US Open.

If he is to become the first Swede since Mats Wilander (1988) to win at Melbourne Park, he will have to not only overcome Safin, who he has beaten once in three meetings, but create history, as no player seeded No.16 has won a Grand Slam title since the advent of Open tennis in 1968.

For Safin, this is his second major final - he won the 2000 US Open - and he will be looking to become only the second Russian winner here after Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who also beat a Swede in the final in 1999 (Thomas Enqvist).

Safin briefly experienced the view from the top of the world rankings at the end of 2000 before niggling injuries over the past 12 months brought him back to sea level.

The contrasts between the two are significant. The Russian is 13cm taller, four years younger, ranked seven spots higher and has earned $6million more in his four years on the circuit. While Safin competes with Goran Ivanisevic as the most quotable player in the media room, Johansson is from the long line of Nordics who prefer to let their supporters do the chanting and their racquets do the talking.

Most of Johansson's dialogue on court is from behind the baseline with the occasional interjection of a volley. For emphasis, he uses a first serve that he is capable of hitting at more than 210km/h. Each of Johansson's winning points are usually applauded by the Nordic brigade of supporters with painted blue and gold faces who have become a noisy, and entertaining, part of the tournament.

The only colours in Safin's extended support group are blondes who wouldn't look out of place in Baywatch. His tennis is at times red hot, as he fires winners either off his serve with bullets around the 215km/h mark, or uses his lethal backhand to set up another point. He admits to struggling in the heat, as was the case for three sets in his semi final against Tommy Haas, before the rain came and Safin stormed through the final two sets, during which he lost only two games.