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AUSTRALIAN OPEN / MEN

Even Johansson, Safin Didn't See It Coming

January 26, 2002|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MELBOURNE, Australia — Self-confidence is one thing, but even Thomas Johansson would have politely wondered about the health of someone making a pretournament prediction that put him in the Australian Open final.

Had he been told that, the Swede said he would have had a pragmatic response:

"I think you should go see a doctor."

In keeping with the theme of disbelief, former U.S. Open champion Marat Safin of Russia was even more blunt about his survival skills after falling behind two sets to one against Tommy Haas of Germany in their semifinal Friday. If rain had not fallen, stopping play for almost 45 minutes after the first game of the fourth set, Safin knew things would have turned out differently.

"I think I had no chance, no chance," he said. "I had no chance to win if it doesn't rain."

When raindrops splashed on the court of Rod Laver Arena, Safin thrust his arms in the air. For him, it was a victory to escape the elements. The real victory came after the break, with the roof closed, when a reinvigorated Safin won 11 of the final 13 games, beating Haas, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-0, 6-2, in nearly 41/2 hours.

You could easily assess the final two sets: a Haas with no game. He finished the match by double-faulting.

"My legs were already really heavy before we went back into the locker room, and I don't think the break obviously helped me much," Haas said. "When I came back out on the court I just kind of had to start over a little bit and he came out on fire."

With one assist from the weather and another from a well-timed, three-minute injury break in the second set, Safin reached his first Grand Slam final since winning the U.S. Open in 2000.

He was slightly defensive about the controversial injury timeout. Safin made the move when he was down a service break in the second set, having lost the first.

"Why not?" Safin asked. "Why not? If you are injured or if you have something bothering you, you can call the doctor, it says in the rules."

Officials at the Australian Open have often been flexible with the rules.

"I think it has to be crucial," Haas said. "Obviously, if you start cramping up and you can see that a guy cannot go on any more, then I think it's OK. But if it's just to maybe throw the opponent off a little bit or try to get a break to calm down, I think it's not fair."

In contrast, there has been little controversy along the way to the final for Johansson. Seeded 16th, he has never gone this far before in a Grand Slam event.

Though Johansson put in many long hours on the court, his road to the final did not feature any major upsets. In the lower part of the draw, which was ravaged by injury and upsets, others did the dirty work. For instance, Johansson beat his countryman Jonas Bjorkman in the quarterfinals. Bjorkman had taken out Tim Henman in the previous round.

In three previous matches, Safin has defeated Johansson twice, including last year's U.S. Open, beating him in four sets in the round of 16. But the Swedish player has the luxury of two days off between his semifinal match and the final, which will be played on his 22nd birthday.

Another hot day is expected. "I hope it'll rain again," Safin said.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

THE FINAL

What: Australian Open men's

championship.

Who: Marat Safin (9), Russia, vs. Thomas Johansson (16), Sweden.

When: 7 PST tonight.

TV: ESPN.

Head-to-head record: Safin leads, 2-1.

Most recent meeting: 2001 U.S. Open round of 16 (Safin won in four sets).

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