Friday, January 6, 2012

Flashback Friday: Safin-Sampras, Australian Open, 2002

Each Friday at The Fan Child's Two Cents, we will tap the archives and take a look back at a classic tennis memory.
Marat Safin and Pete Sampras met four times in Grand Slams, and, strangely, this nail biter in the 4th round of the 2002 Australian Open was the only meeting that went beyond three sets. With Sampras 30 years of age and Safin still 21 at the time (he would turn 22 5 days later), many have wondered what the matchup might have been like had the two reached their prime at the same time in their careers.

Speculation aside, even though these two titans of tennis were more than 8 years apart in age, their meetings did make for some compelling, even ethereal tennis, and the above clip of their third and fourth set tiebreakers provides concrete evidence of that.

Actually, there's enough tennis gusto in the first point of the third set tiebreaker to make a lot of complete matches look, well, wimpy. Athleticism is one thing, and both Sampras and Safin are clearly gifted in that regard, but what impresses me most about seeing these two battle it out head-to-head is the sheer manliness of the tennis. The word formidable comes to mind, and it can be equally applied to both players. Both are dauntingly tall with broad shoulders, and each generates a massive serve and huge groundstrokes from their frames. Furthermore, each employed an aggressive style that suited their assets. This was manly tennis played by manly men, and its visceral appeal -- the sheer intimidating aggressive nature of each -- was awe inspiring and attractive.

What is intriguing about this particular match is that Sampras, after being boxed around by Safin for the first two sets, is clearly digging as deep as he possibly can to try and stage a comeback. Sampras would play (and win) his final Grand Slam only nine months later, and while he'd clearly lost his superhuman-ness at this stage of his career, he hadn't lost that lust for battle that had always partially defined him.

Safin, no doubt bolstered by his straight set victory over Sampras in the 2000 US Open final even after an injury-marred 2001, would prove himself to be up to the task of weathering the Sampras storm on this occasion. The big Russian was able to fight off not one but two set points in the fourth set tiebreaker by hitting blistering backhands down the line that caught Sampras off guard on each.

"He loves that should doesn't he?" said one commentator after the second match point saved.

"Why wouldn't he?" said the other.

Safin would eventually prevail, 6-2, 6-4, 6-7, 7-6

But the former world No. 1 and current Russian Parliament member would eventually fail in his attempt to win his first Australian Open title (he fell to Swede Thomas Johansson in the final).

It's a shame that these two greats weren't a few years closer in age, but they still managed to stage a few epic battles nonetheless, and for that, we should be thankful.

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