If you missed Part 1 of this trip down memory lane, click here.
After setting the table for so long on Tuesday, let’s now dive into the second set of this Masters Cup semifinal. You know, the one with the historic tiebreaker. Here we go:
I have to say, it’s a compelling argument. If I tried to bend like that, I would never walk again. Patrick McEnroe joins in on the joke, and talks about how Federer did the same extreme bend when he won the US Open. Sadly, the production truck didn’t include it in the montage, and PMac sounds genuinely bummed out that they went straight to the trophy shot instead.
1:39 – We get underway in the second with a violent Federer down-the-line forehand that Safin barely gets a racquet on. Strangely, the way Federer hit that shot – both feet in the air – reminded me a lot of the way Novak Djokovic hits that shot.
2:56 – The crowd erupts in laughter, as a Federer backhand is called wide. Cliff Drysdale is confused. Then we see the reason: Safin covers his ears sarcastically with both hands after the “out” call. The lady had been a little loud. This sets up game point.
3:28 – That 40-30 point is quite incredible. Federer attacks with a sort of inside-in forehand on the second ball he hits after Safin’s second serve. Safin half-volleys the shot, and they settle for a strange mid-court rally, in which they trade blows directly at each other, standing in the middle of the baseline. After Safin goes down-the-line with his gorgeous backhand, Federer hits an absolutely incredible forehand slice defensive shot that falls very deep. Safin goes on the offensive, but Federer has an answer to everything the Russian fires his way. Until inevitably Safin goes long with a backhand.
This is what I was talking about on Tuesday: Federer is so good at neutralizing pace, and also so quick to counter with his own injection of power. You could see in this point how this lethal combination drives Safin nuts. This is why their head-to-head record ended up being 10-2 in favor of the ex-ponytail wielder.
4:57 – Safin works hard to get to game point, but Federer once again does something that undermines the Russian’s psyche. Safin hits a good serve up the T, but Federer somehow finds a way to clobber a return that Safin can barely half-volley, and as the lumbering Russian backpedals, Federer hits a beauty of a backhand drop-shot winner.
Again, the serve had been very, very good. Not sure exactly what Safin could’ve done differently there. What’s interesting for me here is Federer’s use of the drop-shot. Mainly because of this:
“It’s sort of a panic shot I thought back in the day,” Federer says.
For the longest time, Federer would not use that very basic shot, even though as we see in this point way back in 2004, there’s nothing “panicky” about it: it’s ruthless, and incredibly demoralizing. Particularly in the context of this point: the dropper came on the second ball, right after that killer return. It’s a very sound tactic. Why not do this more often?
Funny how eight years later, a young Polish player re-ignited the debate about the much-maligned dropper.
5:55 – It’s just astounding how easily Federer handles Safin’s power. Literally like it was nothing. The problem for Safin is that he’s not pulling Federer wide whenever he’s going for pace. Not surprising, because Safin could force errors out of most people by just daring them to handle a shot that’s flying straight at them. Federer, however, just flicks a forehand back at the Russian, with the same amount of pace. Not many tennis players in history have so effortlessly counter-punched with so much pace as Roger Federer.
A few moments later, Federer faces a break point, which he saves with an ace. The match has heated up by now: both guys are just crushing the ball, and a few more errors creep in. Understandably.
9:30 – After two silly errors, Safin faces a second break point in this opening service game. It really feels like the match hangs on the fate of this initial battle. After missing a first serve, Safin goes on a mini rant and swings his racquet in frustration. He’s about to crack. They play an incredible point, highlighted by Federer’s insane movement from side to side, while never falling back more than a foot beyond the baseline. Near the end, Federer has outmaneuvered Safin and comes in to put away a very makeable volley. He screams in frustration right after he hits it, because he’s missed it by a mile. A strange error, on such a big point.
I invite you to take a look at this point. Look at Federer’s movement. It’s like he’s glued to the baseline, and it’s not like Safin is sending soft stuff his way. Just unreal.
Regardless, here is Mirka’s reaction to Federer’s horrific stoned volley:
She’s the best. Also, just because they show this in slo-mo, here’s Federer’s reaction to his EpicFail of a volley:
Yep, it was that bad.
11:05 – To compound Federer’s “misery” (after all, he is up a set and playing well), Safin holds after a service winner and a Federer backhand unforced error. The epic first game ends. Was this a sign of things to come later in the set? And would I be here at 5:46 in the morning writing about this match if Federer hadn’t Roddicked that volley?
Although in all fairness to the recently retired American, he didn’t usually miss his volleys that badly.
11:20 – Cliffy geeks out with some of his trademark slo-mo deconstructions of people’s shots. This time, he’s showing us how Federer runs around his forehand, but the focus is how full his follow-through is, and how it’s completely across his body and not high. Cliffy concludes that this is why Federer has so much control on his forehand. Interesting.
13:04 – Safin had gone up 0-15 after a great forehand return drew an error from Federer, but starts ranting at Steve Ulrich after two straight service winners from the Swiss. Safin claims the last serve was a let. It went uncalled by the chair umpire who may or may not be a robot built to only call the score of a match. Mary Carillo jokes that Safin is “hearing things AND seeing things – he’s delirious!”. Not entirely wrong there.
13:17 – Please watch Federer’s defense at 30-15. It’s beyond belief and I can’t possibly do it justice. This kind of athleticism, coupled with so much easy power with that forehand, is what built the Federer Empire.
14:58 – In a surprising turn of events, Safin nets the break to go up 2-0 after a good return forced an error from Federer to set up break point, and then a tame backhand from the Swiss ended up in the net on break point. Safin is fully taking advantage of the new life he’s been given. The Russian then blasts a backhand cross- court winner and a couple of bombs to get to 40-0 on his own serve. A little later, he consolidates the break at love after Federer goes for a big forehand return off a second serve, but sends it straight into the net. Safin up 3-0 in the second.
17:40 – The production truck sends our announcing crew the replay of that key break point missed by Federer earlier in the set. Safin has only lost two points since then. Quite the turn of events.
18:45 – Cliff Drysdale tells the usual tale about how Federer grew up in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, but then moved to the French-speaking part for his tennis. PMac starts listing the three languages Federer speaks, and then speculates that Federer might speak a little Spanish. The polyglot element was also a novel development for tennis, and Federer’s routine of answering questions in at least two languages during pressers gave him an added level of respect from the media.
As in the game he actually played, the Swiss would have to wait a few years to be challenged in this arena of life. His finest challenger? A young Serb, who on top of speaking his native language, handled German, Italian, English, more than “some” French, and even learned to sign his name in Mandarin.
In more ways than one, Federer was just ahead of his time. By about 5 years.
19:24 – Federer botches yet another forehand volley after a point that looked more like a practice session than anything – Federer seemed more intent on hitting numerous volleys straight back at Safin than on ending the point. In the end, Federer doesn’t miss by a mile, but doesn’t come close to the sideline either. Drops his racquet in frustration. All of a sudden, Safin is constantly in Federer’s service games.
Immediately, Federer is faced with having a to send a second serve to Safin at 30-all. Goes to the Russian’s forehand, Safin goes for it, but nets the reply. Federer holds with an ace.
However, after just a couple of minutes, Safin holds to love to make it 4-1. The Russian looks supremely comfortable now, a far cry from his tentative start. It’s now Federer who occasionally mutters to himself.
25:13 – After a couple of good Safin returns of his serve, Federer is in a 15-30 hold. This graph pops up:
Almost perfect symmetry! Also, pretty insane that Federer only had 5 unforced errors in that first set, where he looked to be aggressive. Also kind of nuts that Safin only has 6 unforced errors at this point in the 2nd set.
PMac correctly notes that Safin is getting better returns in play, which take away Federer’s time, and the ability to take that first strike.
After Safin gets lucky with a return winner that was called in but Hawk-eye showed it was out (funny bit: the crowd saw the replay on the jumbotron and a spattering of boos could be heard), a break point is set up. Safin has been in every single one of Federer’s service games in this set, compared to zero in the first. And here we have more symmetry: the pair are embroiled in a tense rally, and Safin cracks by sending a forehand unforced error well wide. Where’s the symmetry? Safin lets out a yell that’s pretty much a carbon copy of the earlier one by Federer. Both on critical break points. Interesting.
No matter, a Federer forehand unforced error gives Safin a second chance for the double break. But it is erased by a service winner out wide. In about a minute, Federer holds. 4-2, Safin.
30:50 – Safin goes down 0-30 after some sloppy play, but makes his way back into the game with a good volley and a service winner. But then Federer destroys a wide serve to his forehand for a return winner, setting up break point. Safin then hands back his break advantage by sending a second ball forehand into the net.
Safin follows that up by making three straight errors with his forehand in Federer’s service game before finally winning a point. Federer then holds with an ace.
Safin’s forehand was always the side that broke down, given the immaculate nature of his backhand. Even at this point in 2004, where he was close to his best-ever level, that shot would find ways to betray him. Combine that with Safin’s fatalistic mindset, and you can understand why Safin lost the plot so many times on the tennis court. Even when he’s playing well, it’s like he knows his level will drop at some point and that he’ll be lost at sea. He’s just waiting for that instant, for that omen, for that shot that will portend the end of prosperity. In this case, that was the forehand for the chance at a double break. He hooked it badly, and a few minutes later he had lost control of a set he was dominating.
In other words, typical Safin.
36:48 – After Federer hits a gorgeous short return and a killer half-volley to go up 0-30 on Safin’s serve, the Russian somehow finds some confidence in himself and serves his way to 30-all. Then he unleashes this beauty of an inside-out backhand winner, clocked at 84 mph. It was so good that it actually went past a lunging Federer.
Safin’s backhand was a thing of beauty. A good time for some Safin backhand porn!
Anyway, Safin forced a Federer error after some vicious backhands, and manages to hold. Things did not look very good for the ranting Russian at 0-30 there, and it’s a good thing he survived, because Federer held serve for 5-all in about a minute.
41:15 – The crowd goes wild after Safin blasts a scintillating forehand cross-court return winner past Federer. Previously, Safin had surprisingly enjoyed a love hold for himself. Another great return, and it’s 0-30. Federer then hits a beautiful slice smash from the baseline that curls wide for a winner (Novak Djokovic, take note). Safin frames a forehand, then Federer serves up two service winners, and we’re into the tiebreaker.
Could Federer and Safin sense that they were about to partake in a legendary tiebreak? Judging from the set, I don’t really think so. While the first set of this match was pretty straightforward, this second stanza had quite a few twists and turns, missed opportunities, and wild momentum swings.
Conventional wisdom says that the big servers have an advantage in tiebreakers. Marat Safin missed conventional wisdom’s memo, apparently: even though the Russian had a pretty big serve, he couldn’t even win half of the tiebreakers he participated in 2004. Federer did get the memo, and his tiebreak winning percentage at this point was a very nifty 80%.
0-0: It’s kind of strange to see how aggressive Federer has been with his returns in this match. Safin tempts fate by starting the tiebreaker with a serve headed for Federer’s forehand, and the Swiss makes him pay immediately with a deep, hard return. An inside-in forehand later, and Federer has the minibreak.
1-0, Federer: Safin’s great return is neutralized by Federer, and they both settle into a rather tentative rally…until Safin unleashes a backhand down the line. However, Federer manages to return it. It’s astounding how well Federer covered his forehand side, given the danger of Safin’s two-handed backhand. Safin stays on the offensive, forcing a Federer lob. As he’s jogging after the ball, Safin raises his arms in the air, motioning for the ball to fall past the baseline. Yep – it’s a do-or-die tiebreaker for him in the semifinal of the Masters Cup, and Safin finds time for some comedy.
1-1: Federer pulls Safin wide on his forehand (a very sound idea), and forces the error. Also weird to see Federer going for those hard angled forehands. He doesn’t look for those that often these days.
2-1, Federer: Another fantastic backhand down the line by Safin – so good even Federer could only send his defensive forehand slice into the net.
2-2: Federer puts Safin on the defensive after a beauty of a blocked backhand return that pushed the Russian back, who is then forced to go for a down the line passing shot that barely misses. Naturally, he then blasts a ball into orbit.
3-2, Federer: Safin goes all out with a violent cross-court backhand return, then pummels two forehands and a tricky smash to get back the minibreak. That was impressive. You never could predict what Safin might do from point to point.
3-3: Safin attacks with the return once again, but then approaches Federer’s backhand. This is 2004, so Safin barely gets a racquet on the cross-court backhand pass that Federer sent his way. A slight mistake by Safin, who ran around his backhand to hit a forehand approach.
4-3, Federer: As if to prove my previous point, Safin approaches Federer’s forehand after a shot return, and Federer doesn’t come close to getting the passing shot over the net.
4-4: As if to prove my last point wrong, Federer draws Safin into the net with a short slice, Safin approaches Federer’s forehand, and gets passed with ease. Sorry, Roger.
5-4, Federer: A very decent kicker by Federer gets brutalized by Safin with a killer cross-court backhand return. Similar to one Nalbandián hit in Paris five years ago.
5-5: Federer traps Safin in a forehand exchange, and finishes him off with a beauty of a cross-court winner. Sets up match point number 1.
6-5, Federer: Safin doesn’t hold back and goes for the shot that has been working in his favor all day: the backhand down the line. A great one forces a Federer error, and the match point has been saved. Strangely enough, an Argentine-induced “Olé, olé, olé, olé….Safin, Safin” chant breaks out in the stands. So random. Mirka smiles.
6-6: An awesome body serve by Safin sets up his first advantage in this breaker, and his first set point.
7-6, Safin: The Russian attacks with his return, gets a short ball in return, but hits a forehand unforced error into the net. That treacherous forehand once again.
7-7: Service winner for Federer sets up match point number two.
8-7, Federer: The match point is fended off by an incredible Safin ace up the T from the ad court. In incredible serve, at an incredible time.
8-8: Safin goes up the T again, and Federer can just send a return way long. Set point number two for El Marat.
9-8, Safin: El Marat goes for a blast of a forehand return up the middle, and misses by about 6 feet. If not more. That treacherous forehand…
Before Federer serves, we see this:
Amazing that a match this close would show such a wide discrepancy in winners-to-unforced errors differential.
9-9: A mess of a point by Safin. El Marat had run around his backhand and started blasting inside-out forehands into Federer’s backhand corner. At one point, he gets a lobbed reply, but instead of moving in for a swinging volley, Safin retreats, and loses control of the point. Soon after, he goes for a backhand-down-the-line that was ill-timed and misses by a foot. Ouch. Match point number three for Federer coming up.
10-9, Federer: Safin goes for an inside-out forehand winner that looks out, but is called in. Federer points to a mark, to no avail. Remember, Steve Ulrich is in the chair. Hawk-eye shows the ball was indeed out. The match should be over.
Ironic that it was Federer himself who would remain as the sole opposing voice against the implementation of Hawk-eye in the coming years. If they had allowed it on court on this day in 2004, he would’ve been spared a nerve-wrecking breaker.
Mirka’s reaction to the whole thing?
She = da best.
You know who is not da best? Steve Ulrich. That call was on his sideline, and he should’ve made the overrule. Then again, not sure they included the “overrule” software when they designed him.
10-10: Feeling guilty of the gift of a line-call that let him stay alive, Safin sends a backhand way long for no real reason on the third ball he hit in the rally. This sets up match point number four for Federer, this time on the Swiss’ serve.
11-10, Federer: The Swiss shanks a backhand under very little pressure. Returning the favor?
Mirka is not impressed:
11-11: A thunderous backhand down-the-line by Safin is somehow returned by Federer, who a little later gets lucky with a framed forehand that lands in. Safin gets thrown off by it, and misses wildly with his own forehand. Screaming ensues. Match point number five (!!!) for Federer. That treacherous…you know.
12-11, Federer: STEVE ULRICH OVERRULED A SHOT. CORRECTLY!!! ON MATCH POINT!!! I feel like stopping this right now and shutting everything down. It’s like watching a video of a UFO. So freaky.
Mirka is so unimpressed that she’s out of her seat:
She is really da best. You know who is not da best? Our announcing crew, who spent a full minute rambling about Federer’s composure (even though we didn’t know how he would respond to this latest call). Mary Carillo says that two calls went against him. Not really, Mary. The first one, yes – it should’ve been called out. But this last one was definitely not against Federer, since the ball was indeed in, and the linesperson called it out.
12-12: Safin service winner. Crowd is going nuts. Third set point for El Maratski.
13-12, Safin: Service winner for Federer.
13-13: El Maratski with some incredible defense, after Federer had him running all over the place. Once he got the rally back to neutral, Safin unleashes on his backhand down-the-line, and Federer can barely get his racquet on it. That was surreal. Set point number four for Safin coming up. For the first time, on his serve.
14-13, Safin: Safin goes for a huge inside-out forehand from behind the baseline…and misses by about two miles. That treach-yeah, we all know.
14-14: In a rally that had both men going for depth instead of pace, Federer strangely sends a forehand down-the-line well wide. Odd. Set point number five for El Maratski.
15-14, Safin: This is the type of point that we see players lose to this day: enamored with forcing an error from Federer’s backhand, they feed it pace instead of spin, and eventually they get burned. A much more sound tactic is to hit at least once to the forehand in the middle of all that attention to the backhand. Safin had the deuce court wide open, but charged forward like a blind rhino. And got passed down the line with ease. Beautiful counter-punching by Federer to avoid a deciding set. Standing ovation fully deserved.
Also, the “olé, olé” chant is now for the Swiss. Fickle Argies.
15-15: PMac thinks Federer’s ace was wide. Hawk-eye confirms PMac was right. The serve was NOT called out. See why Hawk-eye is great? There have been two blown calls just in this tiebreaker! Also, Federer probably felt like he got screwed by the earlier overrule. Hawk-eye would’ve given him peace of mind.
Yet…he was vocally opposed to it. For years. Anyway, match point number six (!) for the Swiss.
16-15, Federer: A quasi-aggressive rally ends when Federer timidly sends an inside-out forehand into the net. We’re way past “nervy” out there.
16-16: A sledgehammer of an ace up the T by Safin sets up set point number six for him.
17-16: An intense rally develops. A cross-court backhand from Safin seems to have landed out, but nobody makes the call. Federer’s quasi half-volley lands way short, Safin moves in for the kill with his backhand down the line….
And it goes into the net.
Yep, I agree:
There’s a reason you only won two Grand Slams, Marat.
17-17 (!!!): Theoretically, you just need to win 24 points to win a set. These two gentlemen have played 34 points so far in this breaker. Nuts. Federer’s serve up the T nets him a short forehand, which Safin can only push into the net. Match point number seven for Federer.
18-17, Federer: Safin with an unbelievable forehand half-volley from the middle of the service line that clips the sideline as it goes out for a winner. Federer smiles sarcastically. It was a crazy shot.
The fickle Argies are now chanting for Safin.
18-18: Safin. Double-faults.
Match point number eight for Federer, on his serve.
19-18, Federer: Safin stands firmly on the middle of the baseline, blasting forehands Agassi-style, until inevitably that treacherous side of his lets him down. The ball flies long, and the match ends.
I can’t believe Safin double-faulted at 18-all. I’m pretty sure that was his first and only double in the whole match. I’d love to confirm it, but the ATP site is as unreliable as El Maratski was, so I can’t. For the moment. Oh wait, it works now. That crucial own-goal of a double-fault by Safin was just his second in the entire match.
The pair have a nice moment at net:
In the end, it was this second set that served as a preamble to the classic Federer-Safin semifinal at the 2005 Australian Open, with all its twists and turns and endless momentum shifts. Just to recap:
– Federer had an easy volley to go up an early break and run away with the match…and botched it.
– Safin had a simple forehand on a point that would give him a double break…and hooked it wide.
– Federer converted his eighth match point. Safin had seven set points.
– The match really should have ended at 10-9 in the tiebreaker, since Safin’s “winner” was actually out.
Watching Federer as he was in 2004 made me realize he was playing a different game than his contemporaries. The excellence of his baseline game was simply ahead of its time. In Federer you had the complete package: a player who could defend as well as he could attack. And do both things consistently at an impossibly high level. This last bit was what truly set him apart.
However, you could also see from this match that Marat Safin was a force to be reckoned with, in those flickering moments when El Maratski could keep his act together. His particular blend of power and precision was even a little too much too handle for a white-hot Federer.
Alas, those moments were simply too brief.