Russia Secures Place in Davis Cup Final

Sep 22, 2002, Sports Palace "Luzhniki", Moscow, RUS, by Nick Imison

Marat Safin produced a display of power serving to steer Russia into the Final of the 2002 Davis Cup by BNP Paribas. The Russian No. 1 sent down 25 aces as he won a rollercoaster four-set encounter with David Nalbandian 76 67 60 63 to give Russia an unbeatable 3-1 lead over Argentina in their Semifinal tie in Moscow.

Juan Ignacio Chela then defeated substitute Mikhail Youzhny 76 67 64 in the fifth �dead� rubber to reduce Argentina�s final deficit to 3-2.

Twenty-year-old Nalbandian, the hero of Argentina�s historic doubles victory on Saturday, was brought in as a late replacement for Gaston Gaudio, who was forced to pull out of the tie or risk further damage to a left leg injury.

The Argentine continued where he left off the previous evening, taking advantage of three Safin errors to break serve in the third game and build an early 3-1 lead. The Russian produced a winning forehand return to level at 3-3, and the match progressed into a tiebreak, where Safin won four of the first five points and went on to draw first blood 7-3.

When Nalbandian dropped serve to trail 2-1 in the second set, the crowd started to anticipate a comfortable victory, and when Safin produced four aces to lead 4-2, the celebrating began.

At this point the Safin of old returned. For the next three games, forehands and backhands were sprayed to the furthest reaches of the court as Nalbandian fought back to lead 5-4. Strong serving kept the Russian in the hunt and he held on to force a second tiebreak. However a further three aces weren�t enough to compensate for further errors and the Argentine levelled the match 7-5 with an audacious backhand dropshot winner.

At the changeover Safin picked up a warning for racket abuse and a more experienced opponent might have turned the screw. Unfortunately Nalbandian made two forehand errors to trail 2-0 in the third set, and as the level of his own service dropped, Safin�s continued to improve. The Russian won eight games in a row to take the third set 60 and lead 2-0 in the fourth.

And so to the final chapter of an absorbing tie. Having missed a point to lead 3-0, Safin was broken twice to trail 3-2, only for Nalbandian to drop his own delivery and allow the Russian to level. Hitting more freely, Safin broke again to lead 5-3 before a final game which summed up the whole match.

Three times Safin served an ace to reach match point, three times an unforced error allowed his opponent to level at deuce. Another service winner brought a fourth match point, and this time a forehand drop volley winner sent the Russian supporters wild.

Afterwards the Russian admitted that he was exhausted by the efforts of the weekend. �We should have finished the tie yesterday, but we couldn�t find our game and luck wasn�t with us. Afterwards I felt I had no energy left. Today I was really nervous and at one stage I didn�t think I would be able to finish the match. I am very happy to have won.�

A disappointed Nalbandian said: �I gave everything on court, and kept trying to fight back, but it wasn�t enough. Marat played really well and won many points with his serve. I think that was the main difference today.�

Despite the defeat, Argentine captain Alejandro Gattiker was full of praise for his young squad. �We knew we had a competitive team, but we lost against a great team. I am not happy with the result, but I am happy with the way my players reacted and played a great match on what is not our best surface. We have a lot of young players in the world�s top 50, so our Davis Cup future looks good.�

Russia now faces defending champion France in the Final, and will be forced to play away for the first time this year. Underplaying Russia�s chances, Safin said: �It�s going to be really tough. The French team can play on any surface and have many different players they can use. However we don�t have anything to lose, and if we are confident, who knows what can happen.�

�In 2000 Yevgeny and I weren�t playing well and we were defeated by Spain. In 2001 I had a back injury when we lost to Sweden. This year everything fits, so we must convert our chance.�