Safin has nothing to lose
After he was safely into the semifinals, Marat Safin planned to enjoy his day off. A little light hitting. Some therapy on tired muscles. And he thought he'd watch Andre Agassi and Roger Federer's quarterfinal at the Australian Open.
Tied up in knots Eight men have won tiebreaks against Roger Federer since October 2003 in Madrid, when he last lost a match to a Top 10 player: 2003 Player Tournament Score Ivan
Basel 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5), 4-6 Martin
Paris 6-7 (3), 7-6 (12) 7-6 (6) Tim
Paris 6-7 (5), 1-6 Andre
Masters Cup 6-7 (3), 6-3, 7-6 (7) 2004 Player Tournament Score Tim
Rotterdam 3-6, 6-7 (11) Lleyton
Wimbledon 6-1, 6-7 (1), 6-0, 6-4 Ivo
Gstaad 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (4) Dominik
Cincinnati 6-1, 6-7 (7), 4-6 Marcos
U.S. Open 6-2, 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-1
"I will just watch, as I respect both of the players," Safin told reporters. "First of all, Andre achieved a lot. He's a good player. It's gonna be experience against the talent basically. It's gonna be great match, I think. We gonna see a good quality of tennis."
The quality of tennis was high, but it does make you wonder about the effect on Safin as he watched Federer obliterate Agassi, even though he was playing well. What must it be like to watch and know: You're next?
Tonight's semifinal between Federer and Safin is a rematch of last year's Australian Open final where Safin lost in straight sets after a grueling five-set semifinal zapped his strength. This year, Safin's road was much easier and he's coming in fresh against Federer, who has won six out of their seven meetings.
"It's the second week and you better play well if you want to be somewhere around the final," Safin said after defeating Dominik Hrbaty 6-2, 6-4, 6-2 in the quarters. "You have to play well and you have to really be comfortable and confident about your game, otherwise there is no chance. Because the further you go, the more difficult matches you will have. There is no more easy matches."
Well, unless you're Roger Federer.
Ask Federer who his toughest opponent is and the answer is vague. There's a reason for that. Federer owns a 24-match win streak against Top 10 players. And in those 24 matches against the best players the world has to offer, he's dropped only nine sets.
Digest that for a moment. Nine sets. No. 3 Lleyton Hewitt is in the semifinals at Melbourne having dropped six sets in four matches. Though not great, it's not bad (note they weren't all against Top 10 players).
"It's hard to say because my record speaks for itself right now," Federer said in a media session after defeating Agassi 6-3, 6-4, 6-4. "The way I've beaten the Top 10 players, you know, so regular. So it makes it hard to obviously pick one."
Federer does think Safin, who turns 25 today, would be a challenge. Even against Agassi, Federer said he didn't really enjoy the match because he had to concentrate so much. Safin is another opponent who will require focus.
The last time the two met was in the semifinals of the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup. Federer won 6-3, 7-6 (18). It gives Safin hope to hold on through such a long tiebreak. Why? In Federer's past 96 matches, with players of any rank, he lost nine out of 39 tiebreaks. Only one man has won a tiebreak against him twice -- serve and volleyer Tim Henman.
"In the tiebreaker I had so many chances I don't regret at all that I lost, but I prove myself also that I was really close," Safin said.
"Last year, not many people, they could give him trouble. Whenever he was playing well, there is nobody even had a chance. So for me, it was great to see that I have a chance."
"I'm really looking forward to the contest with Safin, you know," Federer said. "I have the feeling he's playing good again, and he had a great finish last year, good start again. So it's going to be a really hard match."
That match in Houston also was the first one they played since Safin began working with Federer's former coach Peter Lundgren in May 2004.
"I'm happy to get through that, that I played him, I got that match away in Houston," Federer said. So, for this reason I can really concentrate on the match itself and not thinking about who's sitting in his corner."
Federer said he does expect a tougher match from Safin than Agassi.
"He's got the bigger serve. That's going to make it maybe more diffcult maybe to break," Federer said. "I think also the record here for him speaks for itself, how much he likes this surface."
Safin also said the matchup is easier for him because he doesn't have anything to lose.
"Everybody knows basically how to play against Roger," Safin said, "but nobody can manage him to get any closer to that, even get into the three sets -- I mean five sets, you know, make him at least be even. It's like 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 or 6-1, 6-2, 6-2.
"It's like a little bit, he's just toying with everybody."
Cynthia Faulkner is the tennis editor for ESPN.com.
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