At the Australian Open today
The man who dropped trou to celebrate winning a point at the French Open last year is talking a lot about maturity at this year's Australian Open.
Known for throwing rackets and breaking about one a match, Marat Safin is so calm these days a reporter recently suggested he should break a ceremonial one after his matches to please the crowd.
"Okay, I will," Safin responded. "It will come soon. If you're asking me for it, I will do it."
Safin's been called a head case by more than one tennis analyst. He shocked Pete Sampras at the 2000 U.S. Open with an impressive display. He was going to be the next big thing.
"I think he has a really big game," Andre Agassi said of Safin last year. "His game, when everything's firing on all cylinders, it's as good as anybody. Can beat anybody, for sure. You know, he can serve big. He returns really well both sides. Moves well. He can make it look very easy."
Too often, though, Safin beats himself. He doesn't suffer fools lightly -- challenging reporters if they give him a weak question, not rudely: just come on, do better. And on court, when things start going badly, it's himself he turns on. Come on. Do better.
About to turn 25 next week, he says he's finally learned how to do better.
"I'm try to give all my best," Safin said after defeating Mario Ancic 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the third round. "If it doesn't go my way, then there's nothing I can do about it. You cannot be hard on yourself. It's already enough to play against the opponent that he is trying to beat you."
Seems a simple concept, but until Safin began working with Roger Federer's former coach Peter Lundgren in May last year, it was an elusive one. It wasn't easy having people judge his past behavior and tell him he should change this or that, he said. His past is something he had to get through in order to be where he is.
"You have to pass through this stage," Safin said. "I think just I passed it, and I'm much calmer. And to get to this point where I am right now, a little bit calmer than I used to be before, is because I had enough a little bit. I also see myself and I also speak to the people and that's why I have a coach.
"So he's little bit trying to show me the way, the shortcut. I don't have to run around to get to the same point." And that's what he's doing. Lying in the weeds. Focusing on his prey.
"I'm saving my energy, my power, try to stay calm and think properly what I have to do to beat him," Safin said.
The next potential victim is Olivier Rochus, who at 5-foot-5 is 11 inches shorter than Safin.
"As everybody would say, he's not so tall, but he's very dangerous. and he has all the talent in the world," said Safin, who has a 3-2 record over Rochus, although they've split their two matches on hard courts.
Rochus has won 10 of 12 matches this year. He reached the semifinals of Adelaide before falling to eventual champion, Joachim Johansson, and finished as runner-up in Auckland to Fernando Gonzalez, who lost in the third round at the Australian Open.
"(Rochus) moves incredibly well on the court," Safin said. "He has anticipation. He has a great eye, great hands. So basically he's very good."
After reaching two finals here previously in 2002 and '04, Safin hopes to finally collect a second major title.
Still, when asked if he could become completely serious -- a machine like Agassi -- his answer showed there's still some of the old Safin's spirit in there.
"Not too serious," he said. "Come on. Life you cannot take too serious. It's just a sport, at the end of the day. It's just a sport that we love to be here and to enjoy it. It's just a sport."
Potential show stoppers
Johansson, at 22, appreciates the chance to play the eight-time major champion.
"He's one of the best players of all times," Johansson said after advancing to his first Australian Open fourth round. "I'm not sure if you really want to play someone like that, but it's a great opportunity for me before he's going to quit. I mean, you never know how many more years he's going to play for, and I think it's going to be nice to play him."
But don't think Johannson will be so in awe, he won't be able to play. He's the guy who upset Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open in five sets. Johansson rose 101 places up the entry rankings last year. This year he has risen another place to No. 11.
"(It's) not going to be easy," Agassi said. "I mean, I've seen his game. I've admired it from a distance many times. Quite powerful. Never playing somebody before, it's hard to know how their game feels and how your game matches."
And Johansson is another big server. In his five-set match with Feliciano Lopez, Johansson served 38 aces (while Lopez served 34 -- the highest by two players since 1991 when the ATP started keeping the stat). "I never like playing big servers. I like playing people that hit the ball very soft all the time," Agassi joked. "I don't care if they're serving or playing a forehand or backhand, the softer the better as far as I'm concerned.
"You know, he's a guy, he throws the ball up, there's a few guys out there that, when they go for their shot, there's nothing you can do about it. You just hope that you can make them do it over and over again and do it in pressure situations and take your chances when you do get them."
Both men came into the tournament nursing injuries -- Agassi a hip and Johansson his hamstring, which he started to feel in his 13-11 fifth set on Friday. Agassi's 34-year-old legs are relatively rested since he hasn't dropped a set yet.
"Tennis can be a very cruel and sometimes arguably unfair sport. But in the spirit of competition, you've got to deal with what's thrown at you. I can honestly say I'm glad I didn't go 13-11 in the fifth."
Agassi's biggest problem might be that he hasn't been able to play Johansson before.
"There's a lot of sort of guesswork involved when you never played somebody. Really, there is," Agassi said. "But he has one of the biggest serves and biggest forehands in the game. I mean, there's no question about that. I don't have a good sense for his movement. I don't have a good sense for his backhand. I don't have a good sense for his volleys. I don't have a good sense if he likes the ball up high or he likes the ball low. I have to sort of assess from what I see and then be able to make adjustments."
Only two qualifiers have ever reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open in the Open Era.
A win would allow Federer to tie another record of 25 consecutive match wins -- this one held by Jim Courier, who is conducting on-court interviews for Australia's Channel 7.
All of the higher seeds in action -- No. 5 Svetlana Kuznetsova and No. 4 Maria Sharapova -- have winning records against their opponents except for No. 2 Amelie Mauresmo who plays Evgenia Linetskaya for the first time.
Cynthia Faulkner is the tennis editor at ESPN.com.
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