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Safin rolls over Djokovic

He scores an improbable 6-4, 7-6 (3), 6-2 victory over the No. 3-seeded player at Wimbledon.

June 26, 2008|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

WIMBLEDON, England -- Wimbledon 2008 suddenly has restored to renown one Marat Safin, lending another peek at one of the most unusual elite athletes in sports history.

Few have been as erratic, or as episodically ingenious, or as humorous in a second language, or as refreshingly blunt, and surely none has qualified so resolutely as all of the above.

Even the Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic, who pretty much reveres the ancient 28-year-old Safin and thought the reverence might've cost him on Wednesday, said after losing to Safin, "He's known for his, you know, mental instability in some ways."

Listeners giggled knowingly.

He's known also for, oh, dropping his pants at the French Open, for blowing gaskets at inexplicable junctures of matches and for dwelling in a deadpan candor that comes off as jolting in an environment full of image-crafting. After he inconceivably became the first man to beat the reliable Djokovic before a semifinal in the last six Grand Slams on Wednesday on Centre Court, Safin freely related that he'd already booked a flight home to Moscow for Wednesday night at 8:30.

It's unconventional chatter for somebody who won the 2000 U.S. Open and the 2005 Australian and once reached No. 1 in the world, but it's impossible to convey how little Safin sweats convention. "There is a flight at 8:30 leaving every evening, so I was almost there," he informed reporters.

Asked if he'd booked another flight, he said, "There is a flight every day. Eight-thirty, arrive at four in the morning in Moscow. Everything is under control."

Asked about re-booking, he blurted, "It's one phone call."

He'd begun the tournament at No. 75 in the world, with a pedestrian Wimbledon history and a record of 10-13 in 2008, so you'd have to be some lunatic to think he gazed beyond the name "Djokovic" in the second round. In a BBC interview immediately after the match, he had zero idea of his third-round opponent (Andreas Seppi).

He'd played his first-round match on the outside Court No. 11, and he spoke a complete lack of resentment about the slight and a picturesque description of life on a remote court.

"You need to go through the stages," Safin said. "I played on Court 11, which is almost in another club. But still you need to go through these kinds of matches to be able to play on the Centre Court. I think my ranking drop, so where you expect me to play?

"I'm 75 in the world and I'm playing against the Italian guy. Actually, not many people they care about this match. Actually, I was surprised it was a full stadium on Court 11. . . . You don't have any challenges there [for line calls], the Hawk-Eye. The chair umpire may be half-asleep."

All along, though, somewhere within his complex being, he retains the capacity for a masterpiece like his 6-4, 7-6 (3), 6-2 win Wednesday, and the right to assess the indomitable No. 3 player in the world with, "He didn't impress me with his game today. I could read his serve. I could return. I could stay with him on the baseline. And that's it."

His flight plan canceled, Safin remains in a tournament he has lampooned on occasion, as last year for overpriced, unacceptable pasta.

"What did I say?" he said. "The strawberries are too expensive. It's true. They don't have enough for dessert. It's true. . . . I was right, I think, in what I said. I didn't make any lies."

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ON THE WEB

Watching Wimbledon from afar is one thing, but living next to the All England Club is another, writes Chuck Culpepper. Go to latimes.com/tennis.

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