Maybe next time

Safin outclassed, but says he'll 'enjoy the moment'

Sunday, 27 January, 2002
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) -- Marat Safin didn't get the birthday present he wanted.

The Russian, who turned 22 on the same day he played in his second Grand Slam final, lost Sunday to Thomas Johansson, a player five years his senior who said at the trophy ceremony that he was "almost over the hill."

But at the Australian Open, ninth-seeded Safin was the favorite, not the talented upstart with nothing to lose who trounced Pete Sampras in the final of the U.S. Open in 2000.

This time, Johansson, seeded 16, was the underdog who had never won a Grand Slam and was "on fire," in Safin's words.

"I couldn't do anything. That happens," Safin said after losing 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, 7-6 (4). "He was too good, he played great. I tried to find my game but I couldn't."

Safin was coming off a five-set victory over Tommy Haas in the and had one less off day between the semifinals and final.

"Maybe I had a little bit more advantage because I had two days off and he had a really, really tough match against Haas," said Johansson, who improved 3-1 lifetime against Safin. "I saw in the third set that Marat was really tired and in the beginning of the fourth, too, I had some chances to go up 3-love, double break. But after that, I think he was playing really well. He was hitting his serve a lot harder than he did before but I saw he was tired."

"I think I didn't play my best tennis, definitely," Marat Safin said. "I didn't make anything special to win today and Johansson was too good. He played great. I just tried to find my game but I couldn't."
Backed by a bevy of buxom, blonde beauties in his box, Safin broke serve in the third and ninth game and saved all six break points he faced to take the first set in 33 minutes.

History appeared to be on the Russian's side as he was 39-0 in Grand Slams when winning the first set. But Johansson, playing in his first career major final but cheered on by vocal group of Swedes in blue and yellow face paint, settled down in the second.

After making 12 unforced errors in the first set, he committed just nine in the second, hitting 14 winners.
"I won the first set and then had just stay calm and try to play. But I couldn't find my game and lost my serve very easily," Safin said. "I didn't feel comfortable on the court today. I tried to do something but my baseline (game) didn't work at all."

The Swede capitalized on the first double-fault of the match to take a 2-1 lead in the second. After dropping his serve for the first time, Safin broke his racquet on the changeover. He had two break points in the next game, but Johansson hit an ace and Safin put a backhand into the net.

Johansson later served out the set in the 10th game, hitting a pair of aces and two service winners to level the match.
"In the second set when he made a break, it changed completely the game and I couldn't come back," Safin said. "He started to play well and was dominating all the time.

"He was overpowering me from the baseline, which is very unusual for me. That somebody is playing a much better backhand than me. That's just how it was and I lost the second set."

Using an effective drop shot, surprisingly dominant serve and a punishing backhand, Johansson started to frustrate his more powerful rival. Safin dropped his serve in the seventh game, hitting two unforced errors and a double-fault on break point.

"I think I was hitting my backhand really well today," Johansson said. "I was really confident. As soon as the ball came on my backhand, I felt good. Sometimes I hit it as hard as I could and that's a great feeling to have."

Johansson had another break point in the ninth game, when Safin was jeered for appearing to tank. But the Swede showed the first signs of anxiety and failed to capitalize. However, he did not falter a game later, easily serving out the set in 43 minutes.

Safin competed better in the fourth set but could not crack the Swede. He lost his serve to begin the tiebreaker and an unforced error put the former world No. 1 in an 0-3 hole.

"I never had a chance to come back," Safin said. "He played great and did all the things he could do. I gave everything today and he was just playing great. He was on fire."

Johansson fired a crosscourt backhand passing shot for a winner and put a return of a serve at 125 miles per hour serve at the feet of Safin, whose half-volley on the baseline went long.

The ninth-seeded Russian pulled within 1-5 when a backhand hit the net cord, went over his charging opponent and in. But Johansson hit a service winner to reach match point.

Safin saved three with a cross-court forehand drive, a service winner and Johansson's wide backhand. However, the match ended when Safin's lob attempt went long. Johansson, with a look of disbelief on his face, celebrated only with a few waves and a kiss to the crowd.

"When I saw the lob going out, that was when I knew I played unbelievable in the tiebreak, but having 6-1 against such a good player as Safin, anything can happen," he said. "My legs started to shake again, so it was tough. But when I had 6-1, I knew I had a really, really good chance."

"Even when I tried to come back in the fourth set, I couldn't do anything," Safin said. "That just happens. I'm a little bit disappointed but you have to accept these things as they are."

Safin didn't live up to expectations after his win at Flushing Meadows, and had an up-and-down season in 2001. But he was stellar in Melbourne, beating Sampras in a tight four-setter in the fourth round and Tommy Haas in five sets in the semifinal.

He was outclassed by Johansson, who was hitting better backhands than Safin, a player renowned for that particular shot.

"He was overpowering me from the baseline," Safin said. "It's very unusual for me, somebody playing the backhand better than me."

At 6-foot-4, Safin is five inches taller than the Swede.

But Safin's shotmaking didn't match his physique, and he said that at times he felt "foolish" because he couldn't make a dent in his opponent's game. Perhaps recognizing that he was simply being outplayed, he was subdued and kept a tight rein on his volatile temper.

He was also gracious in defeat, praising Johansson before the center court crowd of 15,000 when he picked up his silver plate. He even paid tribute to the raucous band of Swedish fans, who were dressed in blue and yellow, their national colors.

"Safin, we love you," they chanted in response. They also sang "Happy Birthday" to the Russian, and many in the stadium joined the chorus.

"You have to enjoy the moment. It doesn't happen very often," Safin said of reaching the final. Speaking at a post-match news conference, he said: "It's my birthday, actually, nobody forget this. It's a small thing you have to enjoy."

Tournament organizers brought a big, chocolate-coated birthday cake into the news conference. Safin blew out the single candle, and plucked a strawberry from the top and popped it into his mouth.

"So at least I have this present. Thank you," he said.

Despite failing to join Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Yevgeny Kafelnikov as the only active players to win a Grand Slam at two different venues, Safin showed this week the form that brought him seven titles and a stay at the top of the rankings in 2000.

Safin planned to fly back to Moscow on Monday to train for Russia's Davis Cup tie against Switzerland next month.

"I have to go back, do my job again and start from the beginning," he said.