In preparation for the upcoming semi-finals and finals of the 2010 Australian Open, I'll briefly review the match DVD from TennisDVDWarehouse of the 2005 Australian Open Semi-Final between Marat Safin and Roger Federer...
It was a dazzling 4 and 1/2 hour five set thriller and one of the best matches in recent memory in Melbourne, in my opinion. It was loaded with suspense and superb shot-making by two tennis giants in top form, and left some tennis lessons for us all...
Marat Safin vs. Roger Federer
Safin wins: 5-7,6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (6), 9-7
The Pre-Match Setting:
Marat Safin faced the World No. 1 ranked Roger Federer, and his 26-match winning streak in this classic Australian Open semifinal. Federer practically had a monopoly on Grand Slam titles, but was matched against an enormous raw talent in Safin who had dismantled the great Pete Sampras in the 2001 U.S. Open Final and was playing some of his best tennis ever. The pre-match hype in the media and on the Melbourne Park grounds was deafening, and the warm Australian evening brought out a full-house to Rod Laver Area - 17,000+ standing-room only. And they were in for some fantastic tennis in a marathon match between two of the game's most gifted all-around players.
What They Saw:
This match offered world-class serves and returns, first rate holds-of-serve and breaks-of-serve, net cords and drop shots, volleys and drop volleys of the highest order. Every point was a struggle as each player would punish any weak shot, and both players found themselves exchanging magnificent forehands and backhands hit with great purpose. The pressure never let up from the word "play", and in fact just intensified until the climax. Safin's serve was dominating throughout, and Federer responded throughout in kind with his own arsenal of baseline winners, drop shots and volleys. Some truly amazing tennis in a land of legendary stories of tennis...
Safin playing up to his enormous raw potential defeats the apparently unbeatable Federer in a grueling 4 1/2 hour epic marathon, ending his string of Grand Slam titles.
The Match Play:
Set one (Federer wins) - From the first ball hit in the first set, the play is crisp and precise, indeed scintillating, as Patrick McEnroe commentating for USA Channel noted. Federer serves first, and there are no breaks of serve until Safin serves 5-6. Federer breaks serve and takes the first set, 7-5, and seems to be in the driver's seat.
Set two (Safin wins) - Federer serves and wins the first game, then Safin follows to serve and win his game. In the third game, with Federer serving, his game play level seems to drop just a bit. Safin presses successfully and comes though with a break, going up 2-1. Safins continues to serve magnificently and wins the second set, 6-4.
Set three (Federer wins) - Federer doggedly raises his game level. Players exchange serve games. Safins seems to be pressing a bit, and his game seems to be off. Federer's level of play becomes immaculate. He takes the set 7-5.
Set four (Safin wins) - The fourth set is a thriller. The match is a service contest as the players hold serve. They exchange devastating groundstokes and volleys. Federer is up 6-5 with a match point. Safin doesn't give up, he hangs in and reaches for some brillant play to save match point. The set moves into a tie-break after Safin levels it at 6 all. The tie-break was a point-by-point nailbiter. Safin claws and fights, and wins the tie-break 8-6. He seems to have found his game. He seems now to believe that he can win. As commentator Patrick McEnroe said at the time watching Safin's play level throughout, "Safin came to play."
Set five (Safin wins) - If the fourth set was a thriller, the fifth set was exponentially even higher on the suspense meter. Federer is treated by the trainer early in the set, and seems to be fatigued. Believing now that he can win, Safin pours it on, holds serve with relative ease and moves ahead 5-2. Federer is serving at 2-5 and barely hangs on and holds serve. It's now 5-3 Safin, with Safin serving for the match. Federer fights off match point, and wins the game, breaking serve. Safin seems to deflate a bit, but continues to believe and press. Federer is still down 5-4, then 6-7, each time fighting off match points and leveling the match.
It's 7 all. Federer seems to be getting stronger. Safin must summon all he can now. Safin holds serve to move up 8-7. Now at the 8-7 in Safin's favor, Federer is serving to stay in the match. But Safin ups the ante and forces Federer down 15-40. Two more match points for Safin. Federer saves the first match point in the game with an ace. He reaches the second match point ball and pushes it over the net, but falls in the process. Safin steers the ball into the open court. The match is finally over. And Safin slowly limps his way to the net, waiting with humped shoulders to shake Federer's hand.
An argument can be made, say some critics, that this match rates as the best played since the 1980 Wimbledon Final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. It surely rivals any recent Grand Slam final or semi-final in memory for suspense, shifting momentum and unrelenting world-class play.
And I think that this match, and in particular Safin's play and methods, may even hold some lessons for us all...
The Lessons Learned:
The right attitude towards a superior foe is respect but not awe
Commentator Patrick McEnroe remarked that Safin had the right attitude throughout the match towards the seemingly invincible Federer: "respect" but not "awe." By that McEnroe referred, I think, to points in the match when Federer might hit an unreturnable forehand winner, to which Safin would simply applaud with his racket, and then follow-up by simply digging right into the next point. To me, "awe" means that you have "internalized" your opponent's superiority, and thus may have likely cededed away the match mentally. In contrast, "respect" means that you simply acknowledge an opponent's better shot on that one point, and move on calmly and deliberately to the most important shot in the match - the next one.
Intentionality behind each shot
McEnroe also commented that in the fourth and fifth sets, which Safin eventually won, "every swing by Safin has a purpose". By this, McEnroe, I think, was pointing out that each Safin shot was aiming the ball into the corner, or deep towards the baseline, or meant to push Federer from side to side. No Safin swing at the ball was just a swing at the ball to swing at the ball. There was a clear intention behind every shot. And Safin's collective intentions behind all the shots eventually paid off.
Belief in your ultimate victory
Safin never gave up. He just kept plugging away until the mighty Federer began to show cracks. It was an awesome test of wills - a stupendous mental contest. Federer too showed his mettle by fighting off match point after match point, putting the heat back on Safin. Safin, for his part, never got nervous or intimated or scared by the defending champion, never got weary or tired of the battle. He just believed that he would eventually win, and he did.