Thursday, January 27, 2005

Safin Rises to the Challenge, Federer IS Human

Before the Australian Open began, the one question that was on everyone's mind was, who could beat Roger Federer? Tennis had not seen dominance of the kind enjoyed by Federer since twenty years ago when John McEnroe was at the peak of his genius. Not when Pete Sampras was chasing down Roy Emerson's record of thirteen slams with ruthless efficiency, not when a rejuvenated Andre Agassi challenged Sampras and took on the mantle of the best player in the world; not even when Mats Wilander won three slams in a year, the last before Federer to achieve that. On the top of the very short list of names that cropped up was Marat Safin. He had the game to beat anyone - everyone knew that. May be Agassi, although Federer had gotten the better of him the last few occasions. May be Hewitt or Roddick or Nalbandian, on a bad day for Federer. No one else even had a prayer. But could any of them actually pull it off at this tournament? Some of the streaks that Federer was running were 'ridiculous', as Jim Courier put it. Courier should know. Federer had not lost since the Olympics, when he somehow lost to Tomas Berdych (who?); he had not lost to a top ten player since late in October of 2003 (!) and had won the last 11 finals he had contested. When Agassi survived a fearsome display (not just of the serving kind, believe me) from Joachim Johansson, he was a contender. By the time he had played his quarter-final against Federer, he was an aging former champion. Or so it seemed. Agassi made Johansson and Taylor Dent look a step slower than him, in his 20th season on tour, when it mattered. True, Agassi did not quite elevate his game to the levels that he was capable of, but then Federer pretty much shut him out of the game, with an awesome all-round display, including a Sampras-ian serving performance. It is in this context that Safin's conquering of the indisputable champion of the tennis world has to be seen. Safin seems to have a knack of rising to the occasion on such big occasions. Last year he ended Agassi's streak at Melbourne Park. It is absolutely unfathomable how he lost the final three years ago to Thomas Johansson. Safin has surely not forgotten that let down, and has another chance to redeem himself. As for the game itself, well it was a classic that will be in the memory of those who were fortunate to witness it for some time to come. There was everything in the game, superb groundstrokes from both and glimpses of genius from Federer, bold attacking play from Safin to take the match by the scruff. And of course all the drama in the seesaw fourth and fifth sets. Federer was not at his best, but not well below his best either. In any case, Safin was the better player on the day. He should be the odds-on favourite for the summit clash - he has to make this one count. - NK

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