Safin ruins local boy's Aussie dream
Russia's Marat Safin today staged a superb fightback to beat home favourite Lleyton Hewitt and claim his first Australian Open title.
Safin, beaten finalist in 2002 and 2004, trailed 4-1 in the third set but produced some superb tennis to win the next seven games in a row. The 25-year-old went on to complete a 1-6 6-3 6-4 6-4 victory in two hours 45 minutes to claim his second grand slam, adding to the US Open title he won five years ago.
Hewitt, looking to be the first home winner in 29 years, fittingly in the championships' centenary year, had needed just 23 minutes to take the opening set in front of a capacity 16,000 crowd on Rod Laver Arena. The 23-year-old third seed dropped just two points on his serve and broke Safin twice to make a dream start to his first final in Melbourne.
Any fears of a completely one-sided final were thankfully dispelled when Safin finally found his range and broke Hewitt's serve courtesy of a thumping forehand return. He still did not look entirely happy however, burying his head in a towel at the change of ends despite leading 5-2. Hewitt saved one set point in the eighth game to force Safin to serve out for the set and the fourth seed held his nerve to take it 6-3 and level the match.
Watched by close friend Greg Norman, Hewitt crucially saved two break points in the opening game of the third set, and promptly broke Safin's serve on his third opportunity in the next to race into a 3-0 lead. That prompted the first Safin racket to be slammed into the court for the third and final time, the former US Open champion also calling for the trainer at the change of ends.
Safin had earlier been slapping his thighs as if to get the blood flowing and had cream rubbed into them by the trainer. It certainly appeared to do the trick as he broke back four games later in a controversial game. Hewitt saved a break point with a stunning forehand but then gesticulated furiously towards a line judge he felt should have called a ball out earlier in the rally. That earnt him a code violation for unsportsmanlike conduct from the umpire, and he was dangerously close to a point penalty when he stared at the same line judge a few points later.
The momentum was firmly with Safin now and after holding to level at 4-4, he broke Hewitt again when the Australian served a double fault attempting to save a second break point. From 4-1 down Safin had taken five games in a row to win the set and take a two sets to one lead. It was Hewitt's turn for the thigh massage at the end of the third set but Safin came out firing at the start of the fourth.
A brilliant backhand winner to end a 30-shot rally saw him break Hewitt's serve for the third time in succession, and he consolidated for a 2-0 lead and seventh game in succession. Hewitt, who fought back from two sets to one down to Rafael Nadal and beat David Nalbandian 10-8 in the fifth set earlier in the championships, was always going to fight for every point and saved another break point to avoid going 4-1 behind.
But he was simply not getting a look in on Safin's serve, aces 16 and 17 putting him 4-2 ahead and another service hold took him to the brink of victory. Hewitt was no doubt remembering Safin had needed seven match points to beat world number one and defending champion Roger Federer in their epic semi-final, but this time he needed only one, a service winner enough to secure a well-deserved victory.