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Steve's Weblog

An incurable tennis addict, Steve Flink has been following the game since 1965, the year he first went to Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships. Flink is a Senior Correspondent for Tennis Week Magazine, a publication he joined in 1992. From 1972-82, he put his photographic memory to use as a statistician for CBS, NBC and ABC. He has been a consultant and writer for the International Tennis Hall of Fame since 1994 and is a member of their Nominating Committee. Steve is the author of The Greatest Tennis Matches of the 20th Century. Flink's recall of match history is unsurpassed.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Reflections on the Davis Cup Final

I enjoyed watching the Russians overcome Argentina 3-2 in the Davis Cup Final on The Tennis Channel last weekend. The final round meeting of those two nations in Moscow was a fitting ending to a great year in the game, most notably for Marat Safin. This gifted shot maker has finished three years--- 2000, 2000, 2002, and 2004--- among the top four in the world. He worked hard all through 2006 to come back strong after he was stifled for so long by a knee injury which had slowed him down for much of 2005. Safin concluded the 2006 season stationed at No. 26 in the world but he did not win a tournament and he suffered too many frustrating defeats, including his fourth round U.S. Open assignment against Tommy Haas. In that match, Safin led 4-2 in the fifth set tie-break but could not get the job done. It was a setback that was symbolic of a year in which he competed honorably despite being largely unfulfilled.

That is why leading Russia to a second Davis Cup triumph--- they were also victorious in 2002--- will give Safin renewed optimism and vigor as he approaches 2007, and a clear sense of how good he can still be. After Nikolay Davydenko had lifted Russia into the lead with a four set win over Juan Ignacio Chela, Safin did not play well against a top of the line David Nalbandian. Nalbandian was vastly superior to Safin on the return of serve, making one aggressive return after another off the Russian’s second serve and taking control of the baseline exchanges throughout the contest. Safin bowed in straight sets, but did not hang his head. He was the best man on the court in the doubles the following day, joining Dmitry Tursunov for a straight set triumph over Nalbandian and Agustin Calleri.

When Nalbandian took apart Davydenko in four sets, the two nations were deadlocked at 2-2, and so it all came down to one match: Safin against Jose Acasuso. Safin confidently took the opening set, then dropped the second. He marched into the lead in the pivotal third set but lost his serve at 4-2. But he played a superb game to break back at love and then served out that set calmly. But Acasuso—a player who possesses one of the better one-handed topspin backhands in the game—stayed with Safin all through the fourth. Safin was serving from behind in that set but, with the pressure mounting, he held on commandingly at 3-4, 4-5, and 5-6 to set up a tie-break. In the tie-break, Safin went ahead 5-2 and eventually took that sequence 7-5. On his second match point--- with Acasuso serving at 5-6—Safin played some terrific defense off his forehand side and eventually lured his adversary into a forehand mistake.

Safin came away deservedly with a 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5) victory. He had more than made amends for his defeat at the hands of Nalbandian with his play in the doubles and on his own against Acasuso. The feeling grows that, as long as he remains healthy, Safin will be a serious force in the game again in 2007. He is one of the few players that can compete with an in form Roger Federer, which he demonstrated in an epic semifinal win over the Swiss in the 2005 Australian Open semifinals. The hope here is that this enigmatic and often infuriating character--- a man blessed with supreme gifts, a player who seldom does himself justice, an individual who defies logic--- will be seen frequently in the latter stages of majors across 2007 and beyond. The game would benefit significantly if this two-time Grand Slam tournament winner (2000 U.S. Open, 2005 Australian Open) would make the most of his late twenties and come away with a few more prestigious prizes.


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