Safin Gives Russia 1-0 Lead in Moscow

Sep 20, 2002, Sports Palace "Luzhniki", Moscow, RUS, by Nick Imison

Marat Safin gave Russia a vital 1-0 lead over Argentina in their Davis Cup by BNP Paribas World Group Semifinal at Moscow�s Luzhniki Stadium this afternoon. The Russian No. 1 came from a set down to defeat Juan Ignacio Chela 67 75 75 61 in a tense four-set encounter lasting three hours and 10 minutes.

It is said that the sign of a champion is someone who can win even when they�re not playing well. Today Safin managed to win despite struggling with the court surface, his nerves and the countless break points that he managed to squander en route to victory.

The Russian came into the match boasting a 2-0 head-to-head record over his opponent, but it quickly became apparent that the Argentine was not to be going overawed by the occasion. Serving well and employing a powerful forehand, he stayed with Safin throughout a tight first set, saving the only break point either player faced, in the seventh game.

The set went into a tiebreak, where Safin hit a backhand return winner on the first point, only to lose the next seven to send cheers throughout the small crowd of Argentine supporters.

When Safin somehow contrived to miss seven break points at 3-3 in the second set, it looked as though it was not going to be the Russian�s afternoon. However serving at 5-6 30-30, Chela saw an attempted forehand winner land just wide, and a forehand lob that landed long on the following point allowed Safin to level the contest.

The turning point of the match came in the eighth game of the third set. The Argentine, who broke the increasingly vunerable Safin serve to lead 4-3, then committed two backhand errors at 40-15 on his own delivery to enable his opponent to tie up the set. The Russian then missed two set points at 5-4, three more at 6-5, and it was perhaps inevitable that it needed a Chela double fault to hand Safin the set on his sixth set point.

With the loss of the third set, Chela�s head seemed to drop and he dropped his opening two services games to trail 4-0. Treatment for a foot injury merely delayed the outcome, with the Russian wrapping up the fourth set 61 to the delight of a packed stadium.

Afterwards a delighted Safin confessed that he had been fortunate to pull out the match. �I always struggle to play on this surface, and have never had good results on it. I was very nervous at the beginning, but found my game in the third set and I think the decisive moment was breaking back for 4-4.�

The Russian admitted that he feels additional pressure in the light of Yevgeny Kafelnikov�s announcement that he is to retire from tennis should Russia go on to capture the Davis Cup. �It is difficult enough to play a tie at home, but Yevgeny tells me almost every day that he wants to retire. I want to help him, and I want to help my country, and that places more pressure on me.�

A disappointed Chela agreed he had squandered chances in the third set. �I had a big chance at 4-3 40-15, but I wasn�t focused enough and made mistakes. Marat played better than me on the important points. In the fourth set I became really tired and struggled to concentrate.�