Safin sees the grass is getting greener

 

TENNIS/Wimbledon Championships: There was a low-level rumble reverberating around Wimbledon yesterday. On Monday it was thunderclouds but on day three of the championships it was Mark Philippoussis and Marat Safin distorting the air as they bombed each other on Centre Court.

It was never going to be a match of finesse or sleight of hand. There were never going to be weighted shots, sliced and feathered between the two 6ft-4in giants. Safin, a two-time Grand Slam champion and the current Australian Open winner, is traditionally a disciple of the "grass is for cows" section of the men's tour. But at the Halle tournament in Germany just two weeks ago, the pleasantly lugubrious Russian had an epiphany. He decided there, after close to a decade on the tour, that grass had become his friend.

For Safin that is an important hurdle to have cleared and yesterday in his match against the Australian he purposefully moved forward both in his head and on court. He now meets Feliciano Lopez in the third round.

The new Safin could be a dark horse this year and despite the injury to Philippoussis in the third set that severely hampered his movement, the fifth seed had the match firmly in his pocket.

Taking advantage of the marginal chances, Safin won the first two sets on a tiebreak before breaking the big serve of a hobbling Philippoussis in the third set to win the match. Fittingly his right arm ended the duel with its 20th ace.

In so far as Safin appears to be moving upward, Philippoussis may have come to a point in his career where he is sliding backward. His ability has never been questioned but he has suffered a debilitating run of injuries over the last five years and yesterday's ligament damage to his ankle is a new one for the ever-lengthening list.

The Wimbledon finalist of 2003 and the former eighth-ranked player in the world required a wildcard entry to get into this year's event, as his ranking has plummeted to 142.

Safin is clear about his conversion to grass and specific about when his change of mind occurred.

"Two weeks ago," he growled. "I couldn't really find myself comfortable on that surface until I played in Halle. I beat some tough players there. All of a sudden I feel comfortable. I felt really comfortable moving on it. All of a sudden all this came to me and I feel pretty good.

"I don't know," he said when asked why he changed his view. "There are a lot of things in life that we don't know why they are coming exactly at this moment. I don't know how to explain it."

Safin, the only player in the draw, with the possible exception of Philippoussis, who can say he's happy but look and sound like he is in the depths of despair, could well change his mind again, but even Roger Federer, who played him in the Halle final, has noticed a perceptible change in the way he has begun to enjoy himself and relax.

"For every single player in the world, it is really important to have fun on grass," said Safin. "Because it is a tough surface. Everybody knows. Nobody can lie to you. It's difficult to play on the baseline because of a lot of bad bounces. So you have to play a sort of game that is not really comfortable. And if you are not having fun, it is impossible to do anything good here."

Federer's path toward the final continued to be fun for him against Grand Slam debutant Ivo Minar. Unthreatened at any point in his match, Federer swept past Minar, ranked 99 in the world, in three sets, 6-4, 6-4, 6-1.

The Swiss world number one has now extended his number of wins on grass to 31 games, which places him behind just Bjorn Borg for the longest grass-court winning streak in the Open era. Borg recorded 41 consecutive wins at Wimbledon between 1976 and 1981 while Federer's run now includes two Wimbledon titles and three in Halle.

"I don't think of streaks," said Federer. "I think of the tournament."

But even the top seed sees Safin as a credible candidate rather than, as in previous years, the joker in the pack. "I had a tough match against him in Halle. He showed how good he can play on grass," said the world number one. "Now that he's beaten two really good players on grass, it definitely puts him in a good position. He's got a big game. He just hasn't shown what he can do yet. Maybe it's a good year for him."

Sweden's Joachim Johansson ended Greg Rusedski's tournament last night in four sets: 7-6 (12-10), 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7-5).

Lleyton Hewitt was also a four-set winner, over Jan Hernych, in what he considered a patchy performance. The main talking point after the win was a comment from former champion Pat Cash.

Working for BBC, Cash thought the microphone was switched off when the camera panned across the stadium to Hewitt's girlfriend, the soap actress Bec Cartright. "I bet she's up the duff," said Cash on air.

The BBC apologised for the comments. Hewitt said no offence was taken. "Pat always comes out with some loose comments now and then," said Hewitt. "I've got a lot of respect for him as a person."