Sat, Jan 22, 2005 - Page 20 News List

Injury brings out best in Marat Safin

ROUND 3 An injured ankle seems to have sparked the Russian to life, while others seem to be succumbing to a host of physical problems

AP , MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA

Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia after falling on the court while playing Mariana Diaz-Oliva of Argentina in their singles match at the Australian Open in Melbourne yesterday.

PHOTO: AFP

Not many players benefit from an injury. Then again, Marat Safin has always been a little different.

Playing better after he twisted his long-tender right ankle, fourth-seeded Safin was testy at times, but kept his famous temper in check in a 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 third-round victory Friday against Croatia's Mario Ancic at the Australian Open.

Still, injuries did take their toll in the season-opening Grand Slam.

Top-ranked Roger Federer was broken in his first service game before getting back on track and spent less than two sets on center court when Finland's Jarkko Nieminen called it quits with an abdominal muscle tear.

Lisa Raymond lasted only one game of her doubles match before retiring with a back muscle strain, leaving her doubtful for her third-round match Saturday against French Open champion Anastasia Myskina. Men's French Open champion Gaston Gaudio, seeded 10th, was able to continue after treatment on both thighs, but Dominik Hrbaty upset him in five sets despite 88 unforced errors.

In women's singles, second-ranked Amelie Mauresmo and US Open titlist Svetlana Kuznetsova both had straight-set victories and will face unseeded opponents in the fourth round.

No. 7 Serena Williams ended the run of wild card entry Sania Mirza, the first Indian woman to make it to the second round of a Grand Slam, finishing off the 6-1, 6-4 victory with a second-serve ace, then skipping off the court. She next meets No. 11 Nadia Petrova.

Wimbledon winner Maria Sharapova, seeded fourth, was playing later, while eighth-seeded Andre Agassi, seeking his fifth title here, took his baseline game into the night's last match against serve-and-volleyer Taylor Dent.

Safin looked tight while just missing the lines early against Ancic, but broke the 2004 Wimbledon semifinalist in the fifth game. He finished off the first set with a pair of aces after squandering a 40-0 lead.

Ancic swapped his white shirt for a blue one and promptly ran off the next four games. Safin got one break back, but Ancic then held twice at love to even up the match.

The crowd included a number of vocal Croats dressed in their national colors and waving their flag. One woman shouted: "Mario, marry me! I love you!"

Both players became increasingly irritable as their unforced errors piled up, muttering to themselves or yelling in anguish at missed opportunities. Safin, notorious for smashing rackets early in his career, often hung his head or stared at his racket as if it had betrayed him. At one point, he rapped his head with his knuckles, trying to regain focus.

"It's a wake-up call," Safin explained. "Sometimes my head goes away and doesn't come back -- I have to get it back here."

After hitting a forehand long to give Safin a break for a 3-1 lead in the third set, Ancic -- back to wearing white again -- bashed a towering fly ball that landed in the seats. Safin netted a backhand on the next point and banged a ball just as high that landed near the umpire's chair.

In between the errors, the two men exchanged heavy topspin drives that often caught the tape during long rallies.

After going up 2-0 in the fourth set, Safin tried to push off to go for a backhand, rolled his right ankle and went down as Ancic held to pull within 2-1. Safin already had the ankle taped, as he has over the last two years, and a trainer reinforced the wrap at the changeover and gave him a painkiller pill.

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