Thursday, June 28, 2007

Like A Kid In A Candy Store

by Craig Hickman

After the first uninterrupted day of play at SW19, rain is once again in the forecast for tomorrow. But it needs to stay in the clouds, because the only drooling I want to experience is my own as I feast upon a great plate of third-round matches.

Surely, much of the focus is on the Roger Federer, Marat Safin showdown. Is Raja, who just notched his 50th consecutive victory on the lawns, vulnerable? Which Safin will show up? Many people have said that their titanic 2005 semifinal in Melbourne was one of the best matches they've ever seen. Raja and Marat haven't played at a Slam since. Safin has been injured for much of that time. But even when he's been competing, the man with a circus in his head, as our own oddman is wont to say, has been as unpredictable as the lottery.

In interviews before the match, Raja has admitted that Marat, along with Andy Roddick and Rafael Nadal, is one of the players over whom he doesn't have total control in a match. If Safin makes up his mind and plays to his ability, he has more than enough game to beat anybody. Even if Raja plays well. "I hope he doesn't take me out," said Raja in an interview as honest and straightforward as I've ever seen from him. No bullshit. No preening. Just truth. As critical as I can be of the man, I give him his kudos today.

For his part, Safin said that, overall, he wasn't feeling particularly confident, "Why should I be? I've only been in one semfinal back in March," but he was focused on getting to the third round to take on Raja.

Safin gets up for big matches, on big stages, against top opponents. The last time he had that opporunity was in the third round of Melbourne in January against Roddick. This readership chose that match as the best of the entire event. Marat made Andy work for that victory.

Based upon his play today against Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi, a Pakistani qualifier who had quipped before the match that he hoped Safin woke up on the wrong side of the bed. No such luck. The Russian's ground strokes were precise, his movement solid, his return of serve top-notch and his volleys crisp. His first serve wasn't as sharp as it could be but he still didn't drop serve in the match.

He'll be ready for tomorrow, weather permitting, and win or lose, he's going to make Raja work.

But wait, there's more.

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