The Australian Open ended with Roger Federer winning the final in straight sets, but his opponent, 24-year-old Russian Marat Safin, might well be called the tournament's hero. On January 27, he celebrated his birthday by defeating world number one American Andy Roddick in the quarter-final and then continued his triumphant progress in the semi-final, where he played one of the most titled tennis players in the world, Andre Agassi.
It was a fascinating battle between brilliant masters that lasted over four hours. In the fifth decisive set, the 34-year-old Agassi could not hold out against the Russian player's pressure. Agassi, who has won Australian Open four times, including last year, admitted that his rival deserved to win this tournament, which is one of the most prestigious in the world and one of the four Grand Slam competitions. "Safin played incredibly well," he said after the tough match.
Sunday was Safin's second appearance in the Australian Open final. Two years ago, he was defeated by Sweden Thomas Johansson. Russian tennis fans had hoped that this time Marat would take the Australian crown, repeating the success of his fellow countryman Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who won the tournament five years ago. But it was not to be.
However, even though Federer eventually outplayed him, Safin deserves a great deal of credit. Few people believed that the Russian, who missed practically the whole of last year with a serious injury and was seriously short of match practice, would be able to perform so brilliantly in his first tournament after his lay-off and reach the final playing against the world's best players. He had to get by five of the USA's best players, including not only Andy Roddick and Andre Agassi, but also the experienced Todd Martin and the ambitious James Blake. The fact that three of these games went to five sets proves how tough they were.
Since Yevgeny Kafelnikov retired, Marat Safin has become Russia's main on-court hope. Russian fans have every reason to expect the greatest achievements from him. He proved his ability in 2000, when he won the US Open at the age of 20, defeating the legendary Pete Sampras in the final. Safin has won other important tournaments as well and it was largely due to him that the Russian team won the Davis Cup in 2002, defeating the French team in the Paris final.
When speaking about Marat's successes, it is impossible to forget that he comes from a tennis family and learned to use a racquet at a very early age. There is nothing surprising in this. Marat's first coaches were his parents, the famous Russian tennis players and coaches, Rauza Islanova and Mubin Safin. They often accompany Marat on his trips, supporting him and trying to help him with advice.
Russian tennis is undoubtedly gaining strength now. 22-year-old Anastasiya Myskina is ranked seventh in the world and performed quite confidently at Australian Open as well. The holder of the Kremlin Cup, she encountered a bit of bad luck in Melbourne. The draw put her against one of the tournament's main favourites, world number two Kim Clijsters from Belgium, in the quarter-final. Myskina put up a worthy fight, but still lost the match. Other Russian female players have made a good impression in Australia this year: Maria Sharapova, Dinara Safina (Marat's younger sister), Vera Zvonaryova and Vera Dushevina. If we add the young Yelena Bovina, Lina Krasnorutskaya, Svetlana Kuznetsova and the experienced Yelena Dementyeva (who made it to the US Open semi-final in 2000 and the final of the Sydney Olympic Games) and Yelena Likhovtseva, it becomes clear that the Russia's women tennis has very promising prospects, and the national team is one of the strongest in the world.
Indeed, the skill of Russia's ladies is proved by another fact: last year at the world's most prestigious tennis tournament, Wimbledon, Yelena Dementyeva and Lina Krasnorutskaya recorded a sensational victory in the doubles over the world's most dangerous duo, Serena and Venus Williams. For the first time in the history of Soviet and Russian tennis, five Russian ladies made it to the last sixteen at Wimbledon.
Russia hopes that Marat Safin's successful start to the year will continue in other tournaments. And there will be a lot of them, including the Olympic Games in Athens. Yevgeny Kafelnikov won the last the Games in Sydney. Will Marat Safin follow suit?