At Open, a Study in Stamina

27th August 2002
By Selena Roberts

Under a thin veil of humidity, Nicolas Kiefer and Marat Safin were all but playing in front of a two-way mirror on the pit floor of Arthur Ashe Stadium yesterday, just contorted subjects in a study on mental stamina and pain thresholds.

Holding debates with himself, planting his racket handle in his mouth, the second-seeded Safin kept begging the sky for answers behind his fickle talent as the match inched past its fourth hour.

Across the net, his legs reddened by fifth-set ice treatments for cramps, his desire obvious as the epic played out, Kiefer kept willing his fickle body to hold up at the United States Open.

What would give first, Safin's head or Kiefer's legs? Officials rolled two wheelchairs into the courtside tunnel should either player buckle, and a riveted crowd sat wondering what was next in the first-round match.

Between Safin's catharses and Kiefer's yelps, fans saw them pull off amazing shots under stress. Saving a match point in the 12th game of the fifth set, Kiefer hobbled forward on a surprise serve-and-volley that left Safin wrong-footed and on his seat. In disbelief, Safin laughed at the absurdity of Kiefer's effort. On the ninth point of the fifth-set tie breaker, Kiefer scrambled forward for a short ball but collapsed in pain on the run.

Safin called a trainer for his crumpled opponent and stood over him until Kiefer picked himself up to face yet another match point. After Safin shanked a nervous return, he finally sidestepped the upset when Kiefer plopped a weary forehand into the net after 4 hours 31 minutes on the court.

The lab experiment was over. Safin's mind had barely held up against Kiefer's body in a 6-3, 4-6, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (4) victory.

"In the tie break, I was really scared because I didn't want to lose," said Safin, who tried to make up for every mindless unforced error (64) with a lifesaving winner (66). "I was really choking." Candid and charismatic as usual, Safin advanced alongside 11th-seeded Andy Roddick and top-seeded Lleyton Hewitt, who picked apart Nicolas Coutelot in straight sets.

Safin's issues have nothing to do with an injury. It's all in his head. He has had a pattern of coming undone since he coolly dismantled Pete Sampras for the 2000 United States Open title.

Against Kiefer, he was doing it again, wanting his opponent to hand him the match instead of taking it. If Kiefer had to retire with cramps, all the better.

"I was praying for it," Safin said with a smile. "Because I couldn't do it anymore, and I wanted to finish this match because it was just terrible."

Terrible to Safin, wonderful for the crowd. If anyone was looking for a splash of excitement on the men's tour, Safin and Kiefer supplied the color. By the time the fifth set began, Safin had smashed two rackets out of frustration and grown hoarse from chastising himself.

"I was going nuts," Safin said. "I had no more rackets and the chair umpire already told me that I should be careful. I had no more power to shout or throw the rackets, so I couldn't anymore."

Instead of venting on his equipment, he stomped his feet, shrugged his shoulders and huffed out loud. He was tortured. Who wouldn't be?

Safin had a chance for an early break of Kiefer's serve in the fourth game of the fifth set. But Kiefer saved six break points with a combination of aces and Safin's miscues. At one point, Safin gnawed on his racket in anger.

Even when Safin eventually went up a break to go ahead, 5-3, with a tantalizing chance to serve out the match, the 6-foot-4 Russian mentally caved in by serving a double fault to give Kiefer a fighting chance. Despite the onset of cramps and visits by a trainer, Kiefer had life.

"It was the whole legs, the groin," Kiefer said. "I had never had cramps before. I just saw it on TV, but now it happened to me."

He is no ordinary midlevel player. While Kiefer is No. 64 on paper, it's a deceptive ranking. Two years ago, he was No. 4 in the world, but a pair of wrist injuries and a lack of confidence pulled him down. Reassembling his game since spring, Kiefer proved how desperate he was for a major victory yesterday, if only to validate the work he put into his comeback.

Limp or no limp, he wanted to end the match standing, not exiting in the awaiting wheelchair.

"I was playing for four hours," Kiefer said. "It was 6-all in the fifth set, only 5 or 10 minutes to go."

The time expired on his legs when he fell to the court on a scramble for a ball on the ninth point of the tie breaker, leaving him down by 6-3.

"I couldn't move anymore," Kiefer said. "From the head, I wanted to hit the ball, but my legs didn't move."

He stood for the final match points, then hobbled away from the court, as fans stood to salute him. For several minutes, Safin just sat in his chair. He was weary � even he needed ice treatment � but his sturdy frame was no worse for wear. It was his mental stamina that was tested.

"First set was great, then I completely lost my concentration," Safin said.

But a similar situation unfolded two years ago, when S�bastien Grosjean nearly took out Safin in a classic five-set match before the Open barely began. From there, Safin went on to win the Open. Who is to say it couldn't happen again?

"Everything is possible in this life, as you can see," Safin said.