Maybe next time
Safin outclassed, but says he'll 'enjoy the moment'Posted: Sunday January 27, 2002 3:26 AM
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) -- Marat Safin didn't get the birthday present he wanted.
The Russian, who turned 22 on the same day he played in his second Grand Slam final, lost Sunday to Thomas Johansson, a player five years his senior who said at the trophy ceremony that he was "almost over the hill."
But at the Australian Open, ninth-seeded Safin was the favorite, not the talented upstart with nothing to lose who trounced Pete Sampras in the final of the U.S. Open in 2000.
This time, Johansson, seeded 16, was the underdog who had never won a Grand Slam and was "on fire," in Safin's words.
"I couldn't do anything. That happens," Safin said after losing 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, 7-6 (4). "He was too good, he played great. I tried to find my game but I couldn't."
Safin didn't live up to expectations after his win at Flushing Meadows, and had an up-and-down season in 2001. But he was stellar in Melbourne, beating Sampras in a tight four-setter in the fourth round and Tommy Haas in five sets in the semifinal.
He was outclassed by Johansson, who was hitting better backhands than Safin, a player renowned for that particular shot.
"He was overpowering me from the baseline," Safin said. "It's very unusual for me, somebody playing the backhand better than me."
At 6-foot-4, Safin is five inches taller than the Swede.
But Safin's shotmaking didn't match his physique, and he said that at times he felt "foolish" because he couldn't make a dent in his opponent's game. Perhaps recognizing that he was simply being outplayed, he was subdued and kept a tight rein on his volatile temper.
He was also gracious in defeat, praising Johansson before the center court crowd of 15,000 when he picked up his silver plate. He even paid tribute to the raucous band of Swedish fans, who were dressed in blue and yellow, their national colors.
"Safin, we love you," they chanted in response. They also sang "Happy Birthday" to the Russian, and many in the stadium joined the chorus.
"You have to enjoy the moment. It doesn't happen very often," Safin said of reaching the final. Speaking at a post-match news conference, he said: "It's my birthday, actually, nobody forget this. It's a small thing you have to enjoy."
Tournament organizers brought a big, chocolate-coated birthday cake into the news conference. Safin blew out the single candle, and plucked a strawberry from the top and popped it into his mouth.
"So at least I have this present. Thank you," he said.
Safin planned to fly back to Moscow on Monday to train for Russia's Davis Cup tie against Switzerland next month.
"I have to go back, do my job again and start from the beginning," he said.