Russian Messing: Canas Stuns Second-Seeded Safin To Reach Toronto Semis

By Richard Pagliaro

A tennis racquet is an endangered species in the hands of Marat Safin. The unofficial ATP leader in destroyed racquets, Safin has trashed more racquets than Pete Townshend has smashed guitars. Tossing his racquet in frustration today, Safin didn't shatter it, but succeeded in cracking his composure to pieces.

A gutsy Guillermo Canas wore down the second-seeded Safin in scoring a 7-5, 6-3 triumph to advance to the semifinals of the Tennis Masters Series-Canada. In his first career Tennis Masters Series semifinal, the unseeded Argentine will take on either third-seeded German Tommy Haas or unseeded Frenchman Fabrice Santoro tomorrow to play for a place in the final.

Seeking his first title of the year, the second-ranked Safin entered today's quarterfinal coming off a captivating comeback victory over Chilean Marcelo Rios in which Safin overcame deficits of 1-3 in the second set and 1-4 in the final set to earn a hard-fought 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-3) victory. Meanwhile, Canas proved himself to be a seed-slayer taking out 10th-seeded Roger Federer in the first round before beating fifth-seeded Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov 6-2, 6-2 in yesterday's third-round.

The 2000 Toronto champion, Safin took the court with a 2-1 career record against Canas with Canas winning their only prior meeting on hard court with a 6-3, 6-3 victory in the first round of the 2001 Tennis Masters Series-Cincinnati.

Surrendering serve at 15 in his first service game, Safin found himself trailing 0-2, but broke back in the third game when Canas netted a forehand. Staring repeatedly at his sore right wrist, Canas reflexively flexed the wrist as if trying to stretch the soreness from the wrist. Withstanding the racquet-rattling power of Safin while playing with a sore wrist is about as easy as arm-wrestling King Kong while wearing handcuffs, yet Canas countered Safin's advantage in power with his consistency from the baseline and doggedly determined pursuit of every shot. As one of the fittest players on Tour, Canas has never seen a shot he didn't believe he could run down and his extreme effort took a psychological toll on Safin, who frequently felt he had won a point only to watch Canas run down the apparent winner and force him to hit one more shot.

Consequently, Safin sometimes played more risky shots than situations required, but was able to overcome his increasingly faulty forehand with a strong serve in the first set. The 6-foot-4 Safin's superior serve enabled him to win 17 of 20 first-serve points in the first set, but the pesky play of Canas proved problematic for the towering, temperamental Russian on his second serve as Canas won 10 of 12 points played on Safin's second serve.

Serving to stay in the set at 5-6, Safin hit a forehand wide to go down double-set point at 15-40. He saved one set point with a service winner, but at 30-40 Canas followed a forehand into the net where he dropped down nearly to his knees in delivering a dazzling drop-volley winner to secure the set, 7-5. The shot apparently served as the antidote to his wrist ailment as Canas pumped his fist in excitement.

"The wrist has been very painful this week," Canas said. "But I took a pill to kill the pain and now it's good."

He was ingesting pain killers before the match and Canas proved to be a buzz kill during the match for a surly Safin, whose mood turned sour following what he felt was a bad call in the fourth game. The call пїЅ combined with Safin's frustration over his own errant shots пїЅ caused the former US Open champion to hurl his racquet to the ground in anger.

"Because of your bad calls, I'm losing the match," an angry Safin complained to chair umpire Steve Ullrich during the changeover after he fell behind 1-4 in the second set.

A tremendous talent, who appears capable of hitting winners from nearly any position on the court, Safin's physical prowess is accompanied by concentration lapses that can make him appear as focused as a college student enduring a mundane lecture the day before spring break.

To his credit, Safin did not give up and held serve at love to close to within 2-4, but desperately needing a break, Safin started off the next game by blowing an easy overhead that he pushed wide while Canas was completely off the court. Despite donating the free point to Canas, Safin won the next two points to take a 15-30 lead, but failed to put two successive returns into the court off mediocre serves as Canas reached game point and held for 5-2 on a brilliant short-angle forehand pass crosscourt.

Like a boxer willing to withstand a barrage of body blows on the ropes, Canas spent much of the match absorbing Safin's strongest shots before unleashing quick, concise counters that stunned his larger foe. Serving for the match at 5-3, Canas played the point of the match as he careened corner to corner in running down four successive apparent winners before pushing a backhand up the line to lead 15-0. The point was a microcosm of the match: Safin seemingly in complete command only to watch a determined Canas fight and fight before turning a totally defensive position into a winner.

At 15-all, Canas slid a service winner wide to Safin's forehand to reach 30-15 then served two successive aces down the middle to vanquish his third seed of the tournament and raise his record to 41-19 on the season, one win less than Andy Roddick, who leads the ATP in victories on the season with 42.

The 12th-seeded Roddick plays another Argentine пїЅ 15th-seeded Wimbledon runnerup David Nalbandian пїЅ in tonight's quarterfinal. Canas, who could join forces with Nalbandian as teammates on the Argentine Davis Cup team that takes on host Russia in September's semifinals, said Nalbandian's Wimbledon run has inspired his countrymen.

"It was good for everyone," Canas said. "He (Nalbandian) made the Wimbledon final and showed us it is possible we can do the same someday. I feel very confident with the way I am playing and I'm very happy to be in the semifinal."