Safin-Federer a Tale of Two Matches

There were two tennis matches played late Friday night in Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, and I’m not including Jelena Dokic’s three-set thriller over Caroline Wozniaki.

The marquee match, the rematch, whatever you want to call it, between former world number one Roger Federer and former world number one Marat Safin was both matches: the awful first two sets and the remarkable third one. In the first set, Federer played sloppy-but-consistent while Safin was erratic on nearly ever other point, missing wildly on his serve, backhand, and especially forehand. But the third set was a different breed: a showcase of two of the most talented players of all time playing the type of tennis that at one point rose both to the top.

And if we really want to know all that Friday’s match was about, we need to ignore the first two sets.

Federer jumped out to a quick, devastating two set lead, converting three of his four break chance opportunities and only twice falling behind 15-30 or worse on his serve. Safin never had a break point.

He closed out the first set with a break at love followed by hold at love. He was nearly as dominant in the second set, breaking Safin in Safin’s last two service games.

Those two sets took merely 59 minutes.

And then Safin turned it on.

After committing 23 unforced errors in the first 17 games, Safin committed only 10 in final set. He never faced break point and only once even had a 15-30 service point and never went to deuce.

Moreover, Safin found his serve.

Despite hovering around 50 percent first-serve percentage throughout the entire match, including an ungodly 43 percent in the first set, Safin had much better control in t hethird, finding the corners even on his second serves and keeping Federer off-balance. During nearly every point in the final set, Safin had Federer on his toes.

Somehow, Federer ran down most of those would-be winners, making Safin have to fight for each point he won. Nobody else, not even Rafael Nadal, could have played such flawless defense as Federer did.

But it also made for a lot of great, sustained rallies and some terse, critical moments.

Safin gained control of his forehand. While it was never brilliant, the miss-hits almost vanished.

During the first two sets, Safin frequently went long with even routine forehands, losing his patience at the end of both sets. He never lost control in the third set, staying cool and not trying to be too agressive with his weakest shot.

Just as noticeable, his backhand was golden.

Safin continually placed the ball right inside the line on his cross-court backhands, forcing Federer out wide. Rarely was there a sustained rally where Safin was not in control at some point.

And most importantly, Safin kept his head.

Even though he had numerous close calls go against him in the final set – he challenged three line calls, winning two, and probably should have challenged a fourth – Safin kept his cool. Even though he did miss a crucial backhand into the net at deuce on Federer’s serve in the tenth game, Safin kept his cool. Even though Federer seemed to have an answer to every shot Safin made, Safin kept his cool.

But Safin still lost the set because the tennis played by Federer was just as remarkable, if not moreso.

Federer really did have an answer to everything Safin did, or at least everything that was not one of Safin’s 14 aces in the match.

He really did run down everything. Everything. Every time Safin was in control of the point, in control of a game, Federer would hit the most stunning defensive passing shot that snuck right inside or on the line.

Federer did not control the net, coming up only a dozen times throughout the match, but his ground strokes were dead-on almost without fault.

Besides a string of three consecutive long backhands in the 11th game of the third set, Federer did not have consecutive unforced errors in any one game at any point after the middle of the first set.

And although he finished with two more unforced errors than winners, 28 to 26, at one error every seven points, it was still a lower unforced error-per-point rate than the epic five-set semifinal during the 2005 Australian Open. In that match, Safin fought off Federer’s match point in the fourth set tie-breaker on the way to a 9-7 win in the fifth set and a championship over Lleyton Hewitt two nights later.

The defensive tennis Federer played coupled with his unnerving ability to win every crucial point kept him in the set even as Safin played the best tennis he’s played in four years.

To say that Federer romped, to say that Federer rolled over Safin is to discount the third set in which the two were near-equals.

In the tie-breaker, Safin, serving down 3-1, was called for a controversial foot fault on his second serve, giving Federer the point and sending the Russian into a confrontation with the linesman and the chair umpire.

Yet, unlike the normal Safin, he kept his cool and promptly won the next two points on Federer’s serve before holding twice to take a 5-4 lead. Safin hit three winners on those four points.

But Federer was not going to roll over and play a fourth set.

The second-ranked Swiss champion won the next two points through his serve, the second with his ninth ace of the night, earning match point.

Throughout the entire match, every time Federer needed a big serve, he got one. It was uncanny. Safin played flawless tennis and could never muster a break point. It would have almost been unfitting if he ever did.

There really is nothing else to call it but unreal. The shots Federer hit, off-balance from the edge of the court after Safin had done everything right were just not fair. No one, not even Andre Agassi, Pancho Gonzalez, Bjorn Borg, Don Budge, no one, could have broken Federer in that third set.

Safin served with his back against the wall for the last time, ripping a Federer return to the far side of the court and charging towards the net. Federer just whipped it straight down the line a little past a stunned Safin and watched it drop gently in.

Game, set, and match.

I’m not going to say this was a classic match – three setters in men’s tennis at a grand slam rarely are. But there is no denying this was a classic set.

Marat Safin played some outstanding tennis and lost the set. And it was not surprising.

Federer, who is always honest in his post-match interviews, recognized what had happened.

“I played well from the start,” he said. “I didn’t give him a whole a lot.”

Federer’s play was so flawless, so reminiscent of three years ago when he was untouchable, that it approached perfection.

“There was moments where he [Safin] did play very well for like, I would say, maybe in the third set I think he played great.”

And that’s where it lies.

Federer did not stomp over Safin like the media is playing it out. Safin definitely did not self-destruct.

Maybe in the first two sets he did.

But in the final set, Federer and Safin played near-perfect tennis, and that is what we need to look at.

One set is not enough for this match to be remembered in history, but it is enough to remind us just how good a rivalry Marat Safin and Roger Federer should have been. That third set should have been happening three or five times a match, six times a year, not once in a blue moon.

Safin is over the hill and hinting about retirement, but at least for one hour, he looked like the world number one of old. Strike that, number two behind Federer.

That third set was great tennis, probably the greatest display of tennis we are going to see in this championship.

And trust me, if that is the greatest set of tennis of the championship, nobody has been cheated. It’s hard to top that.

The only thing we’ve been cheated out of was a complete match like that.

But I’ll take what I’ve been given. I doubt we’ll ever see it from Safin again.

And even from Federer, moments like that are now fleeting.

By bsd987

I have written for since 2004 and was named a featured writer in 2006. I have been Co-Editor of the site since January 1, 2009. I also write for where I am a founding member of the Tennis Roundtable and one of the chief contributors to both the Tennis and Horse Racing sections.

I am "Stat Boy" for's weekly podcast, Poor Man's PTI.

I am currently a Junior at Rice University majoring in History and Medieval Studies. My senior thesis will focus on the desegregation of football in Texas and its affect of racial relations.

Please direct all inquiries to [email protected].

Burton DeWitt
Co-Editor of

One reply on “Safin-Federer a Tale of Two Matches”

there was a lot of speculation the past two years that we would never see federer at the top of his game. he proved us wrong by reaching 3 finals last year and he has looked solid so far. the day he retires is the day that i will say he no longer has it.

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