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Russian Ace Breaks Aussie Hearts in Final

Times Staff Writer

If, say, a Frenchman is to win the French Open again, here’s one way to give the fairy-tale ending a fighting chance of staying intact: 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 Pete Sampras in ruthless fashion at Sampras’ home Grand Slam event. That was nothing compared to Sunday when the proud host nation was poised for one very g’night at Melbourne Park.

Safin stopped the centenary party dead in its tracks. The No. 4-seeded Safin defeated No. 3 Lleyton Hewitt, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, in 2 hours 45 minutes in the Australian Open final in front of a stunned sellout crowd at Rod Laver Arena. It was Safin’s first title in three finals at the Australian Open.

“I’m sure in a couple of days, I’ll look back and think it’s been a great achievement,” Hewitt said. “I’ll have no regrets, and I’ve put everything into this tournament. ... Right at the moment, I’m human and I’m disappointed. To come that close, train so hard to put yourself in a position, it’s hard to take at the moment.”

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So much for destiny and the end of Mark Edmondson’s symbolic hold on the event.

Hewitt was two sets from ending almost 30 years of waiting for another Australian man to win here. Edmondson was the last to do it, in 1976. Safin and Hewitt had split sets, and Hewitt was up a service break in the third, taking leads of 3-0 and 4-1.

But the wild card in the march toward destiny was the unpredictable genius of Safin. He had his own emotional baggage to sort through during a slow start in the first men’s night final at the Slams. Safin, who lost to Thomas Johansson in the final here in 2002, admitted Sunday to thinking he may never win another Grand Slam event.

The victory “was a relief for me,” Safin said.

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“Two Grand Slams, it’s already something. One Grand Slam, you can win by mistake, like I did in 2000,” he added, smiling. “It was a mistake, actually.”

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 going on to receive a code-violation 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 long hours spent on the court in previous marathon matches against the likes of Rafael Nadal, David Nalbandian and Andy Roddick had taken a cumulative toll. Both Safin 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 that match, and he start to miss,” Safin said of Hewitt. “I really felt that he’s not as fast as he could be.”

Hewitt’s “c’mons!” started to dwindle, along with the apparent loss of foot speed. But Safin’s level elevated significantly. Of his 18 aces, 16 came in the final two sets. He had none in the first and had a first-serve percentage of 42% in the opener.

“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,” said Hewitt, who proposed to his girlfriend, actress Rebecca Cartwright, shortly after his loss.

Safin’s effectiveness carried over to the post-match ceremony. He shared a warm moment with Hewitt at the net after match point, and well, if Hewitt couldn’t win here, it might as well have been Safin, who avoided a hat trick of runner-up finishes in Melbourne.

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The Aussie crowds had been pulling for Safin in his other matches -- even singing “Happy Birthday” to him after he defeated defending champion Roger Federer of Switzerland in the semifinals, saving a match point in what was a rematch of last year’s final. He complimented Hewitt on his determination on the way to the final, telling him that he was watching him on TV, a rarity.

Safin almost always brings a distinctive sense of self to the proceedings. Who else would be talking about insects after winning a Grand Slam event and actually make it sound interesting?

He killed a moth in the Federer match and was asked about his display of anger, which amused the crowd. “I guess they believe that this bug should live forever, but it’s just kind of a bug that lives only one night,” Safin said.

His coach is Peter Lundgren of Sweden, who once assisted Federer. Lundgren, a former tour player, was emoting from the friends’ box. Safin looked at TV highlights of his demonstrative coach and joked, “He doesn’t look Swedish. He looks Spanish.”

Lundgren spoke about the 25-year-old Safin’s progress. “He’s maturing as a player,” Lundgren said. “He’s using his ability. In the first set, I was a little bit worried.”

Last year’s talk had been about a Federer-Roddick rivalry. Now, Federer versus Safin could be the headliner in 2005. “I don’t think anyone can dominate the men’s game. ... These two guys are the best,” Lundgren said.

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 Sunday.

“This is No. 2,” he said.

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Lundgren thought about it some more and offered a revision: “Maybe level with No. 1. Tied.”

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Donald Young, at 15, won his first junior Slam singles title, defeating No. 1-seeded Sun-Young Kim of Korea, 6-2, 6-4, at the Australian Open. The No. 2 Young, who recently received a wild card into an upcoming pro event in San Jose, is the first American to win the boys’ title in Australian since Roddick in 2000. ... Scott Draper, juggling the start of a pro golf career, won the mixed doubles title with Samantha Stosur. The Australians and last-minute partners beat Kevin Ullyett of Zimbabwe and Liezel Huber of South Africa, 6-2, 2-6, 7-6 (6).

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Australian Open Men’s Champions

2005 -- Marat Safin

2004 -- Roger Federer

2003 -- Andre Agassi

2002 -- Thomas Johansson

2001 -- Andre Agassi

2000 -- Andre Agassi

1999 -- Yevgeny Kafelnikov

1998 -- Petr Korda

1997 -- Pete Sampras

1996 -- Boris Becker

1995 -- Andre Agassi

1994 -- Pete Sampras

1993 -- Jim Courier

1992 -- Jim Courier

1991 -- Boris Becker

1990 -- Ivan Lendl

1989 -- Ivan Lendl

1988 -- Mats Wilander

1987 -- Stefan Edberg

1986 -- Not held, moved to January 1987

1985 -- Stefan Edberg

1984 -- Mats Wilander

1983 -- Mats Wilander

1982 -- Johan Kriek

1981 -- Johan Kriek

1980 -- Brian Teacher

1979 -- Guillermo Vilas

1978 -- Guillermo Vilas

1977-Dec. -- Vitas Gerulaitis

1977-Jan. -- Roscoe Tanner

1976 -- Mark Edmondson

1975 -- John Newcombe

1974 -- Jimmy Connors

1973 -- John Newcombe

1972 -- Ken Rosewall

1971 -- Ken Rosewall

1970 -- Arthur Ashe

1969 -- Rod Laver

1968 -- Bill Bowrey

1967 -- Roy Emerson

1966 -- Roy Emerson

1965 -- Roy Emerson

1964 -- Roy Emerson

1963 -- Roy Emerson

1962 -- Rod Laver

1961 -- Roy Emerson

1960 -- Rod Laver

1959 -- Alex Olmedo

1958 -- Ashley Cooper

1957 -- Ashley Cooper

1956 -- Lew Hoad

1955 -- Ken Rosewall

1954 -- Mervyn Rose

1953 -- Ken Rosewall

1952 -- Ken McGregor

1951 -- Dick Savitt

1950 -- Frank Sedgman

1949 -- Frank Sedgman

1948 -- Adrian Quist

1947 -- Dinny Pails

1946 -- John Bromwich

1941-45 -- No competition

1940 -- Adrian Quist

1939 -- John Bromwich

1938 -- Don Budge

1937 -- Vivian McGrath

1936 -- Adrian Quist

1935 -- Jack Crawford

1934 -- Fred Perry

1933 -- Jack Crawford

1932 -- Jack Crawford

1931 -- Jack Crawford

1930 -- Gar Moon

1929 -- Colin Gregory

1928 -- Jean Borotra

1927 -- Gerald Patterson

1926 -- John Hawkes

1925 -- James Anderson

1924 -- James Anderson

1923 -- Pat O’Hara Wood

1922 -- James Anderson

1921 -- Rhys Gemmell

1920 -- Pat O’Hara Wood

1919 -- Algernon Kingscote

1916-18 -- No competition

1915 -- Francis G. Lowe

1914 -- Arthur Wood

1913 -- Ernie Parker

1912 -- J. Cecil Parke

1911 -- Norman Brookes

1910 -- Rodney Heath

1909 -- Tony Wilding

1908 -- Fred Alexander

1907 -- Horace Rice

1906 -- Tony Wilding

1905 -- Rodney Heath


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