Jun 26, 2008

Nirmal Shekar Column - The Hindu

Safin shuts out a listless Djokovic
Ivanovic survives scare; Paes-Dlouhy take the tough route to advance
London: If you believed popular myth, the cheapest flight fuel in sport is hunger. Many a fabled take-off has been energised by nothing more than an athlete’s burning desire.
If only life were that simple!
In the last few days here, in the 122nd Wimbledon championships, much has been said and written about a man — Novak Djokovic — who has been touted as the finest example of this sort of flight of fantasy.
In just over two hours on a lovely summer afternoon on the centre court, an enigmatic, outrageously talented Russian — Marat Safin — showed how utterly simplistic and flawed such a reasoning is.
Safin, aged 28 and world ranked No.75, is given to flirting with greatness once every few years. On Wednesday, he chose his moment perfectly to show how still-very-green the third-seeded Djokovic was on the slippery grass of the All England Lawn Tennis Club.Finest moment
The Russian two-time Grand Slam champion’s stunning giant-killing act made sure that the much-awaited semifinal between Roger Federer and the Serbian-who-would-be-king will never take place — at least, not in this tournament.
With a breathtaking exhibition of controlled aggression from the back of the court, Safin, who won the second round contest 6-4, 7-6(3), 6-2 in two hours and one minute, brought up his finest moment on a surface which he had always insisted was best left to cows.
It wasn’t as if Djokovic’s desire had diminished. It is just that hunger also can seldom do the job. On this day, Djokovic simply did not have the tools to deal with Safin’s brilliance on a grass court.
“The pressure was on him. He is trying to become the No. 1 at the end of the year,” Safin said with a wan smile, moments after closing out the match on his third matchpoint. “From me, nobody expects anything.”
When he says ’nobody’ that is really nobody, for it includes himself. And, Safin was merely holding a mirror to his soul, or neural hard-wiring if you please.
What you can confidently expect, of course, is this: if that great literary master, Fyodor Dostoevsky, were still writing today, you’d find a Safin-like character in one or other of his works.Pure one-off
Complex, intriguing, torn by existentialist angst, haunted by inner demons one moment and unabashedly bacchanalian the next, motivated forever by contradictory impulses, Safin is not your average tennis pro. He is a pure one-off.
Pete Sampras, who knows a thing or two when it comes to talent, had always insisted that Safin was one of the most- talented players he has played against. But in a career plagued by injuries and steered off course by the lure of the good life, the 6ft 4in Russian has hardly done justice to his natural talent.
Then again, in what might be the final quarter of his career, after a victory like Wednesday’s, Safin is unlikely to find himself looking back ruefully.
“It was a great match for me. I haven’t won such a match in a long time,” said the man who seemed set to dominate the men’s game when he won the first of his two Grand Slam titles, beating the peerless Sampras in the U.S. Open final in the year 2000.Big difference
On a day when Djokovic looked strangely listless, Safin called the shots from the baseline. He served with tremendous confidence and skills, controlled the rallies superbly and, most of all, returned wonderfully well.
Although Djokovic did have problems with his serve — especially in the first set and in the third — it was the quality of Safin’s returns that made a big difference. Safin returned so well and so deep that the 21-year old Serb, standing on the baseline, rather than a few feet behind, was rocked back on his heels.
It was a very bad day for me. I didn’t do anything I was expected to do,” admitted Djokovic who looked tactically inept on a surface that demands more flexibility than any other.
Safin took the first set riding on a break in the seventh game, dominated the second set tiebreak, winning six points in a row from 0-1, and then outplayed his young opponent in the third.
``The (grass) court is getting slower and slower each year and you can play from the baseline without going close to the net,” said Safin, seeking to explain his stunning success on a surface he has hated to play on.

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