Open, a Study in Stamina
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
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)
"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
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 ï¿½ even he needed
ice treatment ï¿½ 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,"
But a similar situation unfolded two years ago, when Sï¿½bastien
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,"