This new maturity was increasingly manifest as the tournament progressed. The men's draw produced breathtaking matches, none more so than Safin's semifinal dethroning of King Roger I. In his former life Safin would have folded like a chaise longue in a tight match against Roger Federer, the best player in the world. But in his current incarnation the Russian summoned his best tennis at the crucial moments, staving off a match point, firing ground strokes with merciless precision and winning a classic, 5-7, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6, 9-7. Beating Federer in the fifth set at a Grand Slam is tennis's equivalent to staring down Tiger Woods, circa 2000, in a one-hole playoff. But afterward, in an on-court interview with Jim Courier, Safin was so somber that Courier asked, "Do you need a hug, or what?"
Safin was no less businesslike in the final, thwarting Lleyton Hewitt's quest to become the first homegrown Australian Open men's champion since 1976. After losing a nerve-addled first set, Safin offered a tasting menu of shots that were downright Federerian in their virtuosity. The highlight was a running forehand winner that drew a standing ovation from the pro-Hewitt crowd. (Reporter's note: f/hdead run zing--r u joking?) When it came time to serve out the match against Hewitt, the game's most pugnacious opponent, Safin held at love--a fitting coda to two weeks of poised tennis.
Even after winning the big-ticket title that had been so long in coming, Safin didn't lapse into his former ways. There would be no leap into the stands. His valedictory to the crowd was filled with thoughtful, insightful remarks; the customary Safinisms and one-liners were scarce. And he had no plans to lay siege to Melbourne's nightclubs. "I'm getting too old for this," he said. "I need to take it easy."
Williams was similarly subdued in victory, all too aware that there are matters more important than the outcome of a tennis match. As she accepted congratulatory calls and read her e-mail following Saturday's final, there was a conspicuous absence on her caller I.D. and her Buddy List. Still, Yetunde had been riding tandem with her throughout the tournament. "My sister is here in spirit," Serena said, brushing a tear out of her left eye. "I wanted to win this for her. But I wanted to win this for me too."
Before repairing to her hotel, she posed with the trophy, sitting on the bow of a water taxi docked in the Yarra River. Photographers snapped away and passersby cheered and other boats honked. Then the water taxi left the shore and off Serena went, smiling as she left everyone in her wake.