Confident control pays off

Updated: January 31, 2004, 1:38 PM ET
By Cynthia Faulkner | ESPN.com

After his commanding performance at the Masters Cup, it isn't unexpected to see Wimbledon champion Roger Federer in the Australian Open final tonight (ESPN, 10 p.m. ET).

Most sets in a major
Player Sets Event Result
Harold Solomon 30 '76 French Lost
Gustavo Kuerten 29 '97 French Won
Boris Becker 29 '85 Wimbledon Won
Ivan Lendl 29 '81 French Lost
Bjorn Borg 29 '80 U.S. Open Lost
Marat Safin 27 (as of semis) '04 Aussie TBD

No one, however, expected to see Marat Safin there.

Due in part to injury, Safin hasn't moved past the first round of any tournament since April. He missed all of the majors in 2003 except for the Australian Open.

Yet, here he is -- in the final and trying to become the first man since Michael Stich at Wimbledon in 1991 to defeat three reigning Grand Slam champions. (So far, Safin upset U.S. Open champion Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals and Aussie defending champ Andre Agassi in the semis.)

In six matches, Safin has played 27 sets -- just three short of the record. Because of a scheduling quirk, he will get two days off instead of one to prepare for the final.

"Mentally, I'm a little bit tired. I mean, tough matches, they take a lot of energy. And then you make a lot of kilometers, a lot of hours on the court.

"So, basically, an extra day for you, it's really, really helpful."

Injuries appear to be less of a concern. In November, he spent a month with fitness trainer Walt Landers preparing in Monte Carlo.

"It's really important for me to keep myself in shape," Safin said after his five-set victory against Agassi. "It's also difficult to stay focused for one month. I mean, staying in one place, doing your job from the morning till the night. And I managed to do it. And ... I'm getting a lot of confidence from that also."

Staying focused does not usually describe Safin. Head case has been a more frequent characterization. After Safin upset Pete Sampras to take the 2000 U.S. Open, great things were expected. Instead, Safin has been in only one other major final -- the 2002 Australian Open. Berated for playing around off the court, Safin made multiple double faults at crucial points in the match.

"It wasn't my best tennis (two years ago)," Safin said. "I had problems with myself. ... I couldn't get over myself in that final. I just lost -- I couldn't play my best tennis. I was too nervous, too much under pressure. That's why I couldn't pull my best weapons in that finals.

"But coming right now, I'm playing -- I beat so many good players, I'm full of confidence, and it's a completely different story. Going to be, I hope."

Federer, though, is no pushover, even if you are 6-foot-5. Because he's had success on every playing surface, Federer is already being asked if he has the talent to win a Grand Slam on all surfaces.

"Now that I've played well at the Australian Open, I know I've got definitely a better chance also at the U.S. Open," Federer said.

"French Open gives me confidence, knowing that I played finals in Rome, won Hamburg and won Munich. If that is enough to win a Grand Slam ... I don't think so."

An admirer of Pete Sampras, Federer's behavior on court is just as low-key as the 14-time major title winner.

"You always get nervous when something means very much for yourself," Federer said. "I'm definitely a guy who is rather calm on the outside on the tennis court, but very emotional inside."

When Federer took over the No. 1 ranking following his semifinal romp over Juan Carlos Ferrero, his joy was apparent.

"It's just something I will never have again in my life," Federer said. "You're only one time No. 1 in the world for the first time in your career or in your life, maybe. So I really wanted to kind of enjoy it."

Most aces without a double fault since '91
Name Aces Event Match Result
Marat Safin 31 '04 Australian won
Alex Radulescu 27 '96 Wimbledon won
Ivan Ljubicic 27 '03 Basel won
Richard Krajicek 25 '99 Stuttgart indoor won
Kenneth Carlsen 23 '03 Stockholm lost

Although on top of the world now, Federer, too, struggled after his own upset of Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001. The next year, he was bounced in the first round of the French and Wimbledon. Then things changed in 2003 when he won The Championships at the All England Club. But even afterward, nerves crept in as he had the chance to take the No. 1 ranking from Roddick in Montreal.

"I feel like I totally learned out of the Montreal match against Andy where I missed my chance for No. 1. (Against Ferrero), I was much more relaxed. Definitely I was nervous, too, in the end. ... So there I missed it. And it was -- how do you say -- it was the defeat that hurt me the most last year. And now to have made it, to have served it out, it's just really -- it's just really nice."

The problem now is that this revived Safin is really something of an unknown quantity.

"I know he's definitely got the game to win these tournaments," Federer said. "But to right away do it in the beginning of the season after he had some strange results at the end of the season, I don't know how much he was injured. I only saw him play in Madrid, where he lost in three sets to Bjorkman.

"But, it's good to see him back. We're all happy, but we're scared at the same time, so ..."

Rightly so. Safin went toe-to-toe with Agassi on the baseline. Looking for his chances.

"And I was waiting," Safin said. "I was waiting. I had my chance, and I took it straightway." Tonight, he's waiting for Federer.

Cynthia Faulkner is the tennis editor for ESPN.com.