Tag:Novak Djokovic
Posted on: July 4, 2008 11:03 am
Edited on: July 4, 2008 3:23 pm

Safin and Federer: A Three-and-a-Half Year Letdow

Now I know what three and a half years feel like. Of course, I'd rather not have this feeling, not yet, but there's no denying it.

In 2005 at the Australian Open, Roger Federer and Marat Safin played one of the greatest tennis matches of all time with Safin upsetting the world's number one ranked player 9-7 in the fifth set. For four hours and 28 minutes, two of the best players in the world dueled, playing some remarkable tennis for a spot in the Australian Open final. Safin's victory of Aussie Lleyton Hewitt in the finals was almost a letdown after the semifinal.

And so too was today's semifinal.

For years I've been saying that Safin has the most talent of any player in the world- more than Federer or Rafael Nadal, more than Hewitt or Novak Djokovic. And I've been saying how so long as Safin didn't self-destruct out on the court, an activity that has become routine for him for the majority of this decade, he could and should be anyone.

So no one was less surprised than I was when Safin upset Novak Djokovic in the first week of the Championships Wimbledon. Of course I didn't pick him to win; I'm not silly. But I also wasn't surprised.

Safin showed his true talent, absolutely destroying Djokovic's game in every facet. Safin overpowered Djokovic with his serve; his beautiful backhand, one of the best in tennis history, hit winners almost every time Djokovic had a second serve; even his forehand, usually his weakness, was well placed, hugging the line on the far end of the court while Djokovic stood stunned.

On that one American morning and early British afternoon, Marat Safin reminded us of what he can do.

I wrote about it then- I felt compelled to. And after his match against Roger Federer, I feel compelled to write again. What other choice do I have?

Federer did to Safin what Safin did to Djokovic.

Safin earned only two break points in the entire match, both early in the second set. He converted neither. Safin did have his chances, facing a slew of 30-30 points in the second and third sets, but only once was he able to capitalize and even reach break point. Even when he faced second serves, Federer served wide and Safin was off-balanced just trying to get the ball back.

Given, Federer played nearly flawlessly, serving as many aces as unforced errors, 14. But they both hit almost the same percentage of their first serve. Federer held a slight advantage, 66.7 percent to 64.5 percent, trivial in the flow of things.

But never in the match did Safin give anything to make you think he had the game to seriously challenge Federer. Never. You just knew it was coming where he would break down, where his weak mind would take control. He finally lost it in the third set, destroying his racket and getting a conduct warning from chair umpire Lars Graff.

Federer at the time was already up two sets. He took the first set 6-3 and the second in a tiebreaker.

After Safin was broken in his first service game of the match, he held for almost the rest of the match, but to no avail. Safin was serving at 4-5 in the third set and 30-15, but lost his next three points. The last won the match for Federer. And it figures how Federer won the point.

Safin hit the ball into the net but got a lucky net cord. Of course, it went right to Federer who hit a cross-court backhand winner.

Game, set, match Federer. It might as well have been game, set, career.

This was Safin's chance to show that he still had what made him the top-ranked player in the world more than seven years ago. This was Safin's chance to show that he still had what made him a three-time Australian Open finalist, winning one, and a champion in 2000 in New York.

Correction, this was Safin's last chance.

I have said it before and I'll say it again: Safin's win over Pete Sampras at the U.S. Open in 2000 should have been the changing of the guards. But should is the first key word. Safin should have been the best and most accomplished player of his generation.

Safin had the game to be the greatest player of his generation. His backhand is one of the best of all time. His movement allows him to return anyone's serve. It's no coincidence that he served more aces than Andy Roddick when the two met in the quarterfinals of the 2005 Australian Open: no one could get anything by Safin.

He had the game to dominate Roger Federer on any surface, even on grass. Safin's big-serve game with great movement up at the net, even though he would never admit it, is best suited for grass, his least-favorite surface. In case you were wondering, he won 16 of 20 points at the net in the match.

He had the game to stay on top for a while. He was only 20 when he rose to the top and with such all-around talent, even if he slowed down or his serve was no longer as strong, he had the ground strokes to compete with anyone. Heck, he showed what his ground strokes could still do in his annihilation of Djokovic in the second round.

But that's the second key word: had. He had the game. The past tense was evident today.

Safin didn't play that poorly, even though his antics in the third set suggest that he thought he did. I'm not saying he played well, but he didn't play that poorly. Federer played extremely well and still not even close to his best and took the match with ease. If Safin still had the game, he could play mediocre and at least make the match more competitive.

He didn't because he no longer has the same talent as Federer.

Safin should have been the greatest player of his generation and for three and a half years I've been waiting to for him to show it again. Today I learned that he no longer has the game to ever show it again. And this is what three and a half years feels like.

Sure, they've met over the past three and a half years. Just last year they met in the third round of Wimbledon, but Safin was in the middle of his funk and never really showed up. Today he did.

And after three and a half years, it was a letdown.

I knew it would be considering how much I built this match up in my head: the most talented player of the generation versus the most accomplished. And I still think that assessment is accurate.

But Safin is no longer the most talented player in the world. He once was, but he's not anymore. He no longer had the great baseline movement that made him the second-best serve returner in the world, behind only Andre Agassi. He no longer has the slice on his backhand that made it impossible for anyone to return. Most importantly, he no longer has the mind to compete with the world's best.

Safin should have been the best player in the world; he should have had more thrilling wins like he did at the Australian Open in 2005 or the U.S. Open in 2000, but he always found a way to self-destruct mentally. He had that potential. But he never lived up to it.

Today I saw what was likely the last I will ever see of Safin playing a match with a realistic hope to win a major title, and after three and a half years, it's disappointing. It feels like three and a half years.

Actually, it feels like a lot longer.
Posted on: June 27, 2008 2:03 am
Edited on: June 27, 2008 1:47 pm

A Gimpse of Greatness

Every now and then we are surprised by greatness. Usually it comes from redundant people and we expect it: from Tiger Woods and Tom Brady, Kobe Bryant and Albert Pujols.

Sure, these people don't always succeed, but when we see their greatness, we can only admire it.

But Wednesday, we were surprised and we shouldn't have been. Less than eight years ago, Marat Safin was number one in the world and expected to challenge Pete Sampras's mark of 14 grand slam titles. And really, we would have been more surprised if he did not. He had everything: a solid serve, a nasty backhand that could put the ball anywhere on the court, and one of the two best return games since Jimmy Connors, right next to Andre Agassi.

At the 2000 U.S. Open, Sampras had 18 aces in a straight set win over Lleyton Hewitt in the semifinals. He could muster only eight against Safin in the finals. Additionally, Safin earned nine break chances, converting four of them. In his first six matches of the tournament, Sampras had only been broken four times total.

When Safin won that final to claim his first grand slam title, many people thought we were seeing a changing of the guards. Safin rose to the top position in the world after that victory and he seemed to have the complete package. Within a year, he began plummeting.

It wasn't that he was a flash in the pan. No, definitely not. Safin was clearly the most talented young player in the world. When he was on, and he could be on, there was no one who could touch him. But he beat himself, arguing with the umpires left and right and just mentally blowing up on the court. It was almost painful.

Still, based on pure talent alone, he made the finals of the Australian Open in 2002 and 2004.

The 2004 one was the most shocking, as he entered ranked 86th in the world. He beat top-ranked Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals in five sets, somehow serving one more ace than Roddick in the match. Roddick, of course, holds the record for the fastest serve ever recorded. And in the semifinals he took care of Agassi, somehow getting 33 serves by the American return wizard. He was defeated by Roger Federer in the finals, but this was not the last we'd hear of Safin.

No doubt the 2005 Australian Open was Safin's greatest triumph. He entered ranked fourth, but an early exit could see him drop clear out of the top 15.

In the semifinals, Roger Federer took a two set to one lead, but Safin fought back and defeated him 9-7 in the fifth set. It still is the last time a healthy Roger Federer lost to anyone but Rafael Nadal in a grand slam.

That bears repeating: Roger Federer has not lost in the last 12 slams in which he was healthy to anyone but Rafael Nadal since losing to Marat Safin in the semifinals of the 2005 Australian Open. It also should be mentioned that nobody was that shocked when Safin won that match. Only with the tailspin that's occurred for Safin since then does this match raise eyebrows.

Then in the finals, Marat Safin won his first grand slam in more than four years, defeating home favorite Lleyton Hewitt in a convincing four sets.

Safin has not won an ATP-level tournament of any calibre since then. No grand slams, no Masters Series shields, no regular tournaments in more than three years.

In case you were wondering, Federer has won 32 titles since then.

Entering Wimbledon this year, Safin's ranking had plummeted to 75 and with a second round meeting with Novak Djokovic, nobody expected him to be able to improve it. A third-ranked Djokovic who with a title would move to number two in the world against a moribund Safin on Safin's admitted worst surface?

But it's amazing how quickly we forget the talent that Safin possesses. He has more talent than anyone in the world: more than Roger Federer could ever dream of happening. On the rare occasion that Safin is able to overcome himself, he shows it.

And on Wednesday, we saw that greatness.

We saw what we all expected to see since he won the 2000 U.S. Open over Pete Sampras, nearly a full year before Roger Federer defeated Sampras at Wimbledon in his five set epic.

That Federer-Sampras match was supposed to be the changing of the guard at Wimbledon; the Safin-Sampras match was supposed to be the changing for the other 11 months of the tennis year.

As it turned out, Federer was the player who was more mentally capable to win, but never has he shown that he is the most talented player in the world. That honor has always belonged to Marat Safin.

And Wednesday on Centre Court at Wimbledon we saw a glimpse of what might have been. Yes, Djokovic did not play his best match, but he didn't play awful. He won barely a third of his second serves because Safin always found a way to hit a winner. Safin showed he could return any serve wherever he wanted to on the court.

The tennis we saw from Safin was brilliant. It just was. It wasn't perfect, but it didn't need to be.

Usually when the number three player in the world loses to a guy ranked outside the top 50, it's because he played poorly and his opponent played a near-flawless match. Safin definitely made his mistakes, scoffing up 21 unforced errors in the match.

But Safin showed greatness.

There he was on the most important court in tennis; there he was on his least preferred surface; there he was going against one of the best players in the world and Marat Safin thoroughly dominated every facet of the match. The scoreboard, if anything, makes his straight set win seem closer than it really was.

On Wednesday we saw greatness, and we were shocked. And after all the greatness we've come to expect, it's a relief.

Finally, after eight years of waiting, we could be poised to see Marat Safin live up to his potential. So long as he stays sane, he can win this tournament. His talent is just so unending.

If he does win this tournament, most likely by knocking off Roger Federer in the semifinals and Rafael Nadal in the finals, he may finally show that he has not wasted his talent. But I wouldn't count on it.

If they both played a perfect match, Safin would beat Federer on any surface, even on Safin's loathed and Federer's beloved grass. And nothing would be better than the chance to see it.

Unfortunately, nobody knows when Safin's greatness will show up. He could bomb out Friday and nobody would raise an eye. It's what we've become accustomed to expect.

For someone with such ability, it's a shame. It's just a crying shame. There's simply no other word with the power to describe it.
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com