Hiring Federer's coach paid off for Safin

Updated: January 28, 2005, 10:13 AM ET
Reuters

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Marat Safin hit countless brilliant shots on his way to becoming the man who finally stopped Roger Federer in their epic Australian Open semifinal.

But his masterstroke was probably played in April last year on the day he signed up Peter Lundgren, Federer's ex-coach, as the man to get Safin's sometimes wayward career back on track.

Safin has been a larger-than-life figure on the men's tour for the past seven years, but the man Pete Sampras once described as the future of tennis has not always lived up to expectations.

Safin briefly topped the world rankings after he won the 2000 U.S. Open, but Grand Slam success has since eluded him.

Swede Lundgren coached Federer to his breakthrough at Wimbledon in 2003, but they split later the same year.

Safin saw his chance and by September last year he had snapped a 22-month title drought by winning the China Open.

The big pay-off was still to come as Lundgren helped plot Safin's 5-7, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (6), 9-7 victory against Federer in a match hailed on Friday as probably the best ever played at Melbourne Park.

"If you really want to compete, to be able to be close to him ... you really have to see how to improve the game," Safin said of Federer after his four-and-a-half hour win.

"Because normally he toys with everybody. With all respect to other players, he does whatever he wants on the court against them. So that's why ... the job of the coach is to improve and to try to be as close as you can to Roger," he said.

"He put tennis, the bar very high. Very high. It's incredible what kind of game he can play," Safin said.

But the wily Muscovite was giving few specifics away about how they engineered Federer's downfall.

"That's the question that everybody wants to hear the answer. But I'm not going to tell," Safin said with a smile after avenging his defeat by Federer in last year's final.

"I mean, I keep it for me. But I'm sure the players ... basically they know, and they saw it in the match," he said.

One of the most obvious changes under Lundgren has been the new, relaxed Safin. There are still signs of the tempestuous Russian of the past, but he is generally calmer.

Before Safin's triumph, Federer was unbeaten in his previous 26 matches stretching back to the Athens Olympics and was unbeaten in his past 24 matches against top 10 players.

Federer captured three of the four Grand Slam titles last year and was bidding to become the first man since Sampras in 1993-1994 to win three consecutive Grand Slam events.

Federer has been so dominant that the talk had not been about whether he would successfully defend his Australian title but whether he would become the first man to complete the calendar Grand Slam since Rod Laver in 1969.

Federer, who recently turned to Australian great Tony Roche for guidance in his unceasing quest for excellence, tried to put the loss in perspective but could barely hide his disappointment.

"I live my whole life with pressure, so this is nothing different," Federer said. "He's one of the best players in the world. But I didn't feel extra pressure."

Safin will play third seed Lleyton Hewitt of Australia on Sunday (ESPN2, 3:30 a.m. ET) in his bid for a second Grand Slam title.

He will be hoping it is third time's the charm in Australia after his final loss to Federer last year and Swede Thomas Johansson in 2002.