Hewitt Edges Safin In Third-Set Tiebreak To Reach Semis

By Richard Pagliaro

Marat Safin was behind the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz when he had a minor fender-bender in Miami last week. Tonight, Safin was in the driver's seat for one set before experiencing the tennis equivalent of road rage in the form of top-ranked Lleyton Hewitt.

As the squeal of sneakers reverberated throughout the stadium at Crandon Park, a fired-up Hewitt fought back from a one-set deficit to earn a thrilling 2-6, 6-2, 7-6 (7-4) victory over Safin in the Nasdaq-100 Open quarterfinals. Hewitt reached the tournament semifinals for the second straight year where he will play 12th-seeded Swiss Roger Federer for a spot in the final.

Compared to the 6-foot-4 Safin, Hewitt looks as slender as speedometer needle, but his ability to accelerate to the ball allowed him to catch up to Safin's shots and forced the Australian Open finalist to hit closer to the lines. At times Hewitt was playing five-feet behind the baseline, sprinting from sideline to sideline and putting a lot of mileage on his Nikes than a marathon runner.

After splitting sets, Hewitt and Safin produced riveting rallies in the decisive set that was a climactic clash showcasing Safin's shotmaking skills against Hewitt's determination and ability to produce offensive shots from defensive positions.

"(The difference was) a point here and there," said Hewitt. "It was that close. When you get to a tiebreak in the third set, it's, getting off to a good start and trying to consolidate that. I got off to a pretty good start in the tiebreak and I was able to hang on."

The match between the reigning U.S. Open champion Hewitt and the 2000 U.S. Open champion Safin produced some spectacular shots from both players. Hewitt served for the match twice in the decisive set, but Safin broke him both times. Serving at 5-4, Hewitt faced break point when he ripped a forehand pass that seemed destined to elude Safin as he sprinted toward the net. But on full stretch, a sprawling Safin struck a diving drop volley that settled softly over the net while Safin crashed to the court with racquet-rattling force and arose with a service break.

If the acrobatic shot seemed like a scene-stealing effort straight out of a movie, Safin felt more like a stuntman in the shadow star refusing to give up the spotlight.

"It was like in the movie, you know?," Safin said. "Everybody, of course, wish after this jump that you turn the match completely different way and you have to win this match. But (it) is real life and you have the No. 1 in the world. He's still fighting. He's just still there. Nothing changes. I make the good shot, and that's it. But is not Rocky and is not Rambo."

The shot brought the crowd to its feet and Safin immediately gave something back to the fans by shanking a forehand so badly it sailed into the third row behind the baseline. A frustrated Safin seemed to lose his concentration for the duration of the game as he netted a forehand to go down 15-40 before handing Hewitt the service break by slicing a volley wide.

Serving for the match for the second time, Hewitt showed some nerves when he double-faulted at 30-15 before committing two consecutive errors to lose serve for the second straight time and face the tiebreak.

"Marat is a tough player to play because I feel like he's getting better and better at the areas that he's had slight weaknesses in since he's come on the tour,&334; Hewitt said. "He's more aggressive. He comes to the net a lot more now and I think he's becoming a more all-court player. I tried to hang in there. I just sort of told myself, 'Marat played too good in those two games.' I said 'It's 6-all. Now we're even.' It's tough to put out of your mind for anyone. But I think I'm probably as good as anyone at doing it. I'm mentally tough out there, and I wanted to win bad enough as well."

Hewitt won four of the first five points in the tiebreaker which transpired this way:

Safin hit a backhand winner down the line, Safin led 1-0.
Safin netted a forehand, 1-1.
Hewitt hit an ace down the middle to take a 2-1 lead.
Safin guided a backhand wide of the sideline, Hewitt took a 3-1 lead.
Hewitt extended his lead to 4-1 when Safin netted a backhand.
Hewitt double faulted, 4-2.
A backhand from Safin went wide, 5-2.
Hewitt hit a forehand return wide, 5-3.
Hewitt netted a forehand, 5-4.
Safin missed a backhand down the line wide of the sideline as Hewitt reach match point.
Hewitt closed out the match with a service winner down the middle.

courtesy www.sportsmediainc.net/tennisweek