Safin crashes Hewitt's hometown party

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MELBOURNE, Australia - If a French man is to win the French Open again, here's one way to give the fairy-tale ending a fighting chance of staying intact: Just make sure Marat Safin of Russia is not in the final.

Safin, thy name is national spoiler. It first happened in 2000 when he won the U.S. Open by taking out host Pete Sampras in ruthless fashion. That was nothing compared with yesterday, when this proud host nation was poised for one very g'night at Melbourne Park.

Safin stopped the centenary party dead in its tracks. The fourth-seeded Safin defeated No. 3 Lleyton Hewitt, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, in 2 hours, 45 minutes to win the Australian Open in front of a stunned sellout crowd. It was Safin's first title in three finals here.

"I'm sure in a couple of days, I'll look back and think it's been a great achievement," said Hewitt, who was two sets from ending the wait for another Australian man to win here since Mark Edmondson in 1976. "I'll have no regrets and I've put everything into this tournament."

Hewitt was up a service break in the third set, taking leads of 3-0 and 4-1.

But he ran into the unpredictable genius of Safin. He had his own emotional baggage to sort through during a slow start. After losing here to Thomas Johansson in the final in 2002, Safin acknowledged yesterday thinking he may never win another Grand Slam event.

"Today was a relief for me. Two Grand Slams, it's already something. One Grand Slam, you can win by mistake, like I did in 2000," Safin said, smiling.

The Slam turnaround came in the third set. Safin's penetrating backhand started finding the range down the line and even his ground strokes sounded better.

Hewitt didn't help himself by coming undone over a foot-fault call in the seventh game, and received a warning for unsportsmanlike conduct. Safin broke serve and stepped it up, winning the final five games of the set.

Safin felt as though Hewitt ran out of gas. The previous marathon matches against the likes of Rafael Nadal, David Nalbandian and Andy Roddick had taken a toll. Both Safin, who beat Roger Federer in a 4 1/2 -hour semifinal, and Hewitt needed treatment during the final.

"When I got the break in the third set, something happened inside of him that he didn't believe anymore that he can win, and he start to miss," Safin said.

Said Hewitt: "There's not a whole heap you can do when you're down a break in the fourth set and the guy is hitting three aces every service game."

Of Safin's 18 aces, 16 came in the final two sets.

Last year's talk had been about a Federer-Roddick rivalry. Now, Federer vs. Safin could be the headliner. "These two guys are the best," said Safin's coach, Peter Lundgren, who once assisted Federer.

He was talking about Federer and Safin. They also provided him with his top two moments in coaching: Federer's first Wimbledon title, in 2003, and Safin's Australian Open breakthrough.

Which is No. 1? "Tied," he said.

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