Safin beats Hewitt to dash Australian hopes

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Marat Safin ruined hopes of a home triumph for Lleyton Hewitt by winning the Australian Open 1-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4. Having lost two previous finals, Safin conquered both his inner demons, nerves and the endless running of Hewitt to lift his second major title. The first ever final to be held at night time had exhausting rallies, a highly charged crowd, the trainer on for both players and fist pumps all round.

Afterwards, Safin paid tribute to the noisy spectators, saying: “I know 90% of you were for Lleyton, but thank you for the support.” Several points had calls of “out” from the public whilst play was in progress, but Safin kept his concentration when it mattered.

Hewitt paid tribute to Safin, acknowledging that “You beat the guy who has been impossible [Roger Federer], you deserve it, mate”. Hewitt had been talked up by the press as destined for the title, but joined Pat Cash as Australian runner-up rather than Mark Edmondson as a home winner.

Both players were under different sorts of pressure going into the match. Hewitt carried the burden of hope of the Australian crowd and the 29-year drought in the centenary tournament. Safin had the final jinx, the worry that he could become the Goran Ivanisevic of Melbourne - always the bridesmaid.

The two men had never met before in a major, an amazing statistic given that both men have been close to the top for the last five years. Their previous matches had produced five wins each. Both Hewitt and Safin won their first slam in similar styles, beating Pete Sampras in straight sets in the US Open final in 2000 (Safin) and 2001 (Hewitt). And both had lost slam finals to Roger Federer in 2004. But there the similarities end. Hewitt went on to become Wimbledon champion in 2002 and achieved two consecutive year-end number one rankings while Safin went on to enjoy the more distracting elements of the tour.

Hewitt’s 2005 Australian Open had been his most controversial tournament. Juan Ignacio Chela spat at him during their third-round encounter, and David Nalbandian criticised Hewitt’s on-court behaviour before their quarter final, saying “If he won a point that’s fine but when you do a mistake or something like that, that’s the worst thing.” The two players exchanged words during the match and bumped shoulders at the change of ends.

Both men had hugely draining matches to reach the final. Roger Federer held a match point against Safin, but the Russian prevailed. Hewitt played in two marathon five-set matches against Nadal and Nalbandian, and needed over 17 hours of play to reach the last round.

The patriotic crowd started a spontaneous rendition of the Australian anthem before the first set, and immediately Safin responded by dictating play, hitting either winners or losers while Hewitt attempted to prolong the rallies by forcing the error. And the tactic worked with Safin dropping his serve straight away.

It was the fifth game before Hewitt hit anything that could be called a winner or an unforced error. Safin was aiming for the lines to counter Hewitt’s court speed but kept missing. Down 1-4, 0-40 Safin had to produce a drop shot, a searing backhand down the line and a heavy forehand to pull back to deuce. But Hewitt hit a superb lob and cross-court forehand pass to break again.

Safin’s tactic of playing at the net looked like a bad idea but his main problem was his erratic serve. Hewitt was getting everything back, and the first set lasted only 23 minutes, 6-1 to the Australian.

Safin needed a good start to the second set and got one. Putting Hewitt under pressure at 30-all, Safin was forced into a volley error, and the first loud “C’mon”s were heard. At 1-1, a forehand down the line from Hewitt was worth two points as Safin seemed shocked by his speed and ability, and another break looked possible. But in the next game it was Safin who broke as he began to find his range with his groundstrokes.

Safin’s small band of supporters became more vocal, prompting several shouts of “Shut up” from the home supporters. And it was not just the Australian crowd who were rattled: Hewitt began to miss from the baseline for the first time in the match, and held with a lucky net-cord to force Safin to serve for the set . Another net-cord upset Safin, but Hewitt was unable to capitalise as his errors gave Safin the set, 6-3.

Hewitt began the third set under pressure from Safin’s hitting and his own mistakes, and was determined to pump himself up when saving break points.

The retrieving ability of Hewitt earned him a break point after the rally of the match, but Safin stepped up his play to stay in the game. An overrule incensed Hewitt, screaming “You idiot!” at the umpire. But it was Safin who cracked on the third break point, and his racket bore the brunt of his frustration. Hewitt started to play tennis of quality and touch, outwitting Safin with lobs and angles.

Safin called for the trainer and received treatment on his legs but Hewitt showed no remorse, moving his opponent about in a lengthy rally of over 30 shots. Safin hit a few remarkable winners, but they were prompted by desperation. But this was the game that turned the match. Suddenly Hewitt was serving 4-2, 30-40, and an ace was denied by a foot-fault call. The ensuing rally was an epic, with both men at their best.

Hewitt’s winner down the line was followed by him at his worst, as he gave the linesman a volley of abuse that earned him a warning from the umpire. Another break point was saved in dramatic fashion, and the crowd started to become involved during the rallies as Safin peppered the lines. Having previously looked out of the match, Safin suddenly produced winners to break serve, and the set was wide open.

In his next service game Hewitt looked shell-shocked as another foot-fault was called. Safin seemed rejuvenated, and Hewitt gave away his serve with a double-fault. Safin kept his serve and managed to win the set having been 1-4 down.

It was Hewitt’s turn to call for the trainer for some leg treatment, and Safin’s turn to show no sympathy. He hit a stunning forehand pass, and teased Hewitt with a drop shot that brought up his third break in a row. A run of seven games to the Russian from the third set into the fourth put Hewitt in a deep hole.

The fifth game of the set began with a rally of ridiculous shot-making and drama, followed by a stream of aces from Safin to hold. Hewitt worked hard to stay in the fourth set, but Safin didn’t give him a chance. As another huge serve gave him the match, he registered victory with a simple arm in the air. No tears, no shouts. Safin looked exhausted, not just from this match but from the burden of fulfilling his immense talent.

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