Thursday, July 3, 2008

Safin-Federer Semi is a dream come true

This is a matchup that many of us wouldn't have dared to dream. Most of us have been too busy predicting the outcome of another Nadal vs Federer final to dream about Safin. But then, suddenly, there he was. Marat, from out of a pile of burning ashes, and suddenly the outcome wasn't so certain. Now there is something else to consider. An old champion has come forth from the grave to spoil the party.

Now that it's here we can bask in the delight of this truly unlikely semifinal match. Safin aka the Miracle on grass has booked a spot in the Wimbledon semifinal vs. Roger Federer, the holder of the most consecutive Wimbledon Men's singles titles (along with Borg, Federer has 5). Yes, that's the same Federer who has won 64 straight matches on grass.

Safin's resurgence, while remarkable, might not be as inexplicable as we have been led to believe by the television media. I just perused this new piece about his recently hired coach, Hernan Gumy. Apparently (thanks to his coach) conditioning and strength have been the primary focus of Marat's training regiment of late. While he remains forever volatile and enigmatic, there does appear to be a new calm within him that is serving to keep him stable.

Perhaps that calm stems from the fact that Marat isn't sucking wind on the court anymore? Certainly something is different, and anyone who has watched Safin implode on a regular basis (he came in with a 10-13 record for 2008) can immediately sense the difference.

After losing the first set to Feliciano Lopez in the quarters yesterday, the 28 year old Russian (unseeded in the tourney) used his rediscovered confidence to immediately change the tone of the match. Facing a possible and all too familiar crash and burn scenario, a determined Safin sprung to life after a rain delay and proceeded to manhandle the fiery Lopez for the next 2 hours. When it was over he didn't look like #64 in the world any longer. No, he looked more like the champion of yesteryear, the one who had only visited us via scrapbooks of late.

Fridays match will be Safin's first major semifinal since January 2005, when he upset Federer in 5 sets. Fans are still wondering, does Safin really have a chance against Roger aka our heavenly father Federer? Federer is 8-2 against Safin, and he hasn't lost a set in the tournament as of yet (Safin has lost 3). Still, there appears to be something special about this new and improved Safin that enables one to envision the upset.

Safin has already scored an epic upset as recently as last week, when he ambushed a shell-shocked Novak Djokovic in the 2nd round. So we know he isn't just getting the luck of the draw. He's playing well against formidable opponents and it is no longer ridiculously far-fetched that he scores another upset against Federer, who many feel has dropped a level this year.

Safin, who leads Wimbledon in service breaks (27 breaks on 50 opportunities), is using his quickness again. and his quickness is a perfect segue to his power. He is launching heavy artillery from both wings. His athleticism, always artistic, has been noteworthy: In a third set tiebreaker with Lopez, tied at 1-1, Safin performed a backhand smash that defied gravity - it was a clear cut sign that he isn't going through the motions anymore. He really has improved, and he seems to be more determined with each passing match.

But beating Federer is a tall task, even for a champion who has regained his mojo. Fed has won the last five titles at Wimbledon. He is now only 2 short of Sampras and Renshaw, who each hold 7 crowns. He is god's gift to grass. He is motivated, and he is playing his best tennis of 2008. He is 2-0 vs. Safin on grass, by the way.

This one has the makings of a true classic. Whether it will be remembered as one remains to be seen. As you can probably tell, I'm hoping for the best.