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Wednesday, December 6, 2006
Updated: December 7, 9:00 AM ET
Safin still has passion


If there's anything you can count on during Davis Cup action, it's those spontaneous, affirming, "I love this game" moments.

In last weekend's final between Russia and Argentina, that moment duly arrived late in the fourth set between Russia's Marat Safin and Argentina's Jose Acasuso -- an extraordinary point featuring a risky between-the-legs lob thrown up by Acasuso, a desperate backhand lunge from Safin and, finally, a deft winner from Acasuso at net.

I love this game.

How could these two keep ratcheting up the level of play as they went deeper and deeper into the match, with the stakes so high and the pressure so immense?

The crowds, as always, were electric. Each side also had a national icon in the stands -- former leader and tennis fanatic Boris Yeltsin urged Russia on, while superstar soccer player Diego Maradona chanted, cheered and clapped along with a small but demonstrative group of compatriots.

Tension and tennis rose in tandem till the fourth set reached a tiebreak and Acasuso finally sent a petrified forehand into the net, giving Russia its first Davis Cup championship on home soil.

While Safin was quickly surrounded by his teammates and hoisted into the air, Acasuso trudged back to his chair and wept. His face was still tear-stained afterwards. "I'm sad for having lost. I'm sad because I gave it a 100 percent," he said. "I feel sad because we did everything, we were so close to it."

We. We were so close to it.

It's the word that makes Davis Cup pressure unique. Normally, players seek greatness for themselves, by themselves, and in situations of their own making. But in Davis Cup, a player can be suddenly plucked from the sidelines and thrust into a situation that demands greatness -- from the player, but for the nation.

That's the situation Acasuso found himself in on Sunday afternoon in Moscow, having sat out the first two days of the tie before being called into duty for the fifth and final match. He watched from the bench as the teams split Friday's singles, Russia won the doubles on Saturday, and Argentina rebounded to even the score by taking the first singles on Sunday. That sent the tie into one of the most spine-tingling occasions in tennis -- a live fifth rubber.

Fail to win, and Acasuso wouldn't just be letting himself down -- he would be letting down teammate David Nalbandian, who had brilliantly and belligerently led Argentina into the final and then played through a recent family tragedy to win two superb matches against the Russians. He would be letting down Argentina, which was trying to win tennis' biggest team competition for the first time and shake off a reputation for being weak when playing away from home. And of course, he would be letting down Maradona.

Hence the tears. Inexperienced Davis Cup players who have lost a live fifth rubber in the final bear the scars for years -- think of talented youngster Paul-Henri Mathieu or the late-blooming, big-serving Wayne Arthurs. Even those who win, like Mikhail Youzhny, can struggle under the resulting burden of expectation.

This time around, it's Safin's turn to bear that burden of expectation. For the two-time Grand Slam winner, it's not about whether he can compete with the best in the game (he defeated Roger Federer on his way to his second Slam title), but about whether he can consistently do justice to his almost peerless talent.

Last month, playing his last regular tournament of the season, Safin sounded disconsolate. "It has been a terrible year for me … disappointments following disappointments," said the world No. 26. When reminded about Davis Cup success, he responded, "Yeah, but who cares?"

On Sunday, his contented face said otherwise. "It motivates you well to stay in tennis and to continue your career," he reflected afterwards. "The victory in the Davis Cup is about one of the best events in one's career."

He also joked that shaking Maradona's hand on Saturday had given him luck. Their brief encounter led to Safin coming up with tennis' one-liner of the year. "It was a great honor for me to shake the hand with which he scored the goal." The soccer player is infamous for scoring a goal using his hand during the 1986 World Cup and then denying it by saying that the only hand involved had been the "hand of God."

Will the team's victory be a launching pad for individual success from Safin next season? Not even he knows. Injuries continue to hamper the big Russian, and the mental prospects still bearish. But on one thing, at least, his colleagues should be forewarned: Safin loves this game again.