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Safin survives fans, doubts to top Hewitt



Published: Mon, January 31, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Marat Safin's second Slam title disappoints the faithful hoping for an Aussie winner.

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) -- Seeing somebody else unravel was different for Marat Safin. So was winning the Australian Open.

Safin, who has lost twice in the last three finals at Melbourne Park, defeated Lleyton Hewitt 1-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 Sunday night, deflating a crowd hungering for an Australian winner. This was the Russian's second Grand Slam tournament title, his other coming at the 2000 U.S. Open against Pete Sampras in the final.

"It's psychological -- you start to have doubts, like really I could do this or not," said Safin, a player known for his racket-busting outbursts. "It's the third time, you get so nervous, so uptight.

"I don't want to lose it," he added. "Nobody cares about the (losing) finalist -- so it was just a kind of a relief. "

Safin, who defeated top-ranked Roger Federer in the semifinals, was called the worthiest of champions by Hewitt.

"You knocked off the guy who's nearly been impossible," Hewitt told Safin. "You thoroughly deserve it."

After the third-seeded Hewitt shanked a forehand on match point, Safin was surprisingly subdued, making only one fist pump. Hewitt told him, "Mate, too good."

Hewitt disappointed

Hewitt was hoping to be the first Australian man to win the national championship since Mark Edmondson in 1976. And he seemed in command and on his way in the first set, making only one unforced error. He led 3-0 in the third set and Safin was on the edge, smashing his racket into the court three times in eight points.

But that seemed to clear his head while Hewitt lost his. The Aussie became enraged at a line judge who called him for a foot fault on a break point in the seventh game of the third set. Hewitt saved the break point and then screamed at the line judge, pointing his finger twice at his face. That earned Hewitt a code violation from the umpire.

"I'm human and I'm disappointed -- to come that close, train so hard to put yourself in a position -- it's hard to take at the moment," said Hewitt, who will replace Andy Roddick at No. 2 in the rankings. "Making a U.S. Open final, a Masters Cup final, and now an Australian Open final, I'm obviously doing something right. But would have been nice to get one of them."

Comeback complete

Safin rose to No. 1 after winning the U.S. Open, then plunged to 86th after injuries in 2003. His comeback started last year in Australia, where he played some marathon five-setters before losing to Federer in the final. He finished No. 4 last year and has credited his resurgence to new coach Peter Lundgren, who coached Federer until the end of 2003.

"I never believed in myself before at all, until I start to work with him," Safin said.

He said the Australian Open title was more important to him because it proved he could win again. In 2000, he didn't expect to win.

"It was against Sampras. Nobody really cared," he said. "Even though if I would make it, lose three sets, they would say, 'Great tournament, well done. You were great, you played great tennis, but he's Pete Sampras.' So basically no pressure whatsoever."

"But now, I am 25. I'm playing against Hewitt," he added. "You go there and you lose first set 6-1, then, you know, like you start to think, 'I'm playing ridiculous.' You start to try and find a way out, and I found it."

Russian slam

The fourth-seeded Safin completed a Grand Slam, of sorts, for Russia. Russian women won the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open last year. Safin made it four in a row for his country.

The looming obstacle at this tournament was Federer, who won 11 titles in 2004, including three Grand Slams. But Safin removed that immense roadblock in the semifinals, saving a match point in the fourth set before ending Federer's 26-match winning streak. He played it cool that night, his 25th birthday. And he held it together -- just -- in the final before Hewitt lost his temper.

"He's an awesome player," Hewitt said. "Even when I was a set up, at no stage did I start thinking this is just going to carry along."

Safin, who had received a good-luck text message from the only other Russian to win a men's Grand Slam title -- Yevgeny Kafelnikov at the 1996 French Open and 1999 at Melbourne Park -- thanked everyone after his victory. And that included the crowd, "even though 90 percent of you were for Hewitt."




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