Safin Survives Tough Test

Safin Survives Tough Test

By Richard Pagliaro

The tiebreak is tennis' tug of war and tensions tightened four times today before Marat Safin pulled through with a 7-6 (7-5), 6-7 (2-7), 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (7-5) triumph over Ivan Ljubicic in an exhausting second round encounter that spanned three hours and 27 minutes today.

It was the ninth straight U.S. Open victory for the defending U.S. Open champion who fought a familiar foe and faced his own fears in emerging with the first U.S. Open victory in four tiebreaks since Derrick Rostagno defeated Jakob Hlasek 6-7, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6 in the third round of the 1991 U.S. Open.

"I've known him for seven years. We first played when I was 14 and he's a very tough guy to play," Safin said. "It was very tough. But I was luck on tiebreaks. I was really scared."

Fear fueled Safin's aggressive play in the final set tiebreak. With the score deadlocked 4-4, Safin slammed a 134 mph ace down the middle and followed by stepping up to the service line and firing a flat forehand winner crosscourt that landed inside the sideline to reach match point at 6-4. Two points later, Safin sealed the match with his 16th ace down the middle then celebrated by bashing a ball into the stands.

"To keep staying on the baseline and wait for his mistakes is a little bit stupid," said Safin of his decision to attack in the final tiebreak. "I decided to do something and put him under pressure because the guy was struggling a little bit with the forehand. I tried to go to the net. I think it's a good thing to have one match like this, very difficult. You have to fight."

A year ago, Safin fought through a similar match in the third round against Sebastien Grosjean. Two points from defeat in the fifth set tiebreak, Safin rallied after a rain delay and stormed back to earn a 6-4, 7-6 (7-3), 1-6, 3-6, 7-6 (7-5) victory. That match inspired Safin, who dropped only one set the rest of the tournament. Safin is quick to dismiss comparisons to his breakthrough at the 2000 U.S. Open and insists he is not nearly as confident as he was then.

"I can't compare myself with last year," he said. "Last year I played and everything was perfect. I was playing unbelievable. I feel comfortable on the court and it was a great feeling to play. But now, I'm struggling. It's very difficult to play. It's very difficult to fight because you don't have enough confidence."

While his confidence may be waning, Safin's concentration deserted him in the second set as he let a 4-2, 40-15 lead dissipate and watched Ljubicic come back to win the set and even the match.

"I lost my opportunity, it was like a joke," Safin said. "I just completely lost my concentration. I just went out of the match. I mean, I was completely lost. It was very difficult to come back, really."

Earlier in his career, Safin may have responded to the frustrating mental lapse by smashing his racquet, but instead the man who once led the ATP in broken racquets rallied by rushing the net and knocking off a forehand volley winner to take a 6-4 lead in the third set tiebreak. When Ljubicic lofted a backhand that landed long by four inches Safin seized the third set. In a match that featured only two service breaks, one from each player, Safin's superior play on the big points proved to be pivotal.

"The whole match was so equal," said Ljubicic, who surrendered the first set when he double faulted on set point. "It could go either way. I don't think there is any difference actually. He served unbelievable."

The third-seeded Safin meets Moroccan Hicham Arazi in the third round. Safin said his conquest of Pete Sampras in last year's final was a once in a lifetime effort he doesn't expect to duplicate, but he's still striving to regain the rhythm he had last year.

"It was too perfect," Safin said. "It can happen once in my life, last year. If you come back and try to win again it's an unbelievable, beautiful feeling because you have an unbelievable reason to have a huge party with your friends. That's why I'm coming here. I want to win again because it's a nice feeling."