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
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
"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