Nothing comes easy for Todd Martin.
Two sets down one night, two sets up another, Martin lurched into the U.S. Open semifinals Thursday night with a ragged 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 victory over Thomas Johansson.
There was no victory lap this time, no high-fives with fans, no reason to feel wonderful about a match that he almost let slip away.
Martin, the runner-up last year, looked nearly as exhausted after this triumph as he did after a five-set win two nights earlier over Carlos Moya. Now he has to wonder if he will have anything left in the semis against young Marat Safin.
“I’d like to walk off the court without holes in me,” he said, referring to Safin’s huge serves.
Martin worried that he might not have any energy against Johansson after playing 4 hours, 17 minutes against Moya until 1:22 a.m. Tuesday night. Fortunately for Martin, this match lasted only 2:32, and ended at 10:23 p.m.
“I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to get going in the first place,” Martin said. “The energy from the crowd really helped. I made a couple of good plays at crucial times in the fourth and that raised my energy.
“My legs didn’t feel good, and they don’t feel great right now. I understood that I didn’t need to play great tonight. I didn’t need to hit the ball great. I didn’t need to do everything perfectly. I just needed to do something at the right time better than Thomas could.”
Down a break at 2-4 in the fourth set, Martin steadied himself and let Johansson spray errors to give up the lead. Martin broke back to 4-4, then broke again in the final game to close it out. It wasn’t pretty, but it was good enough to satisfy Martin.
“I think the uglier the tennis, typically the better tennis player wins,” Martin said.
Like the gangly young Pete Sampras who won his first U.S. Open with raw power a decade ago, Safin is a player everyone in tennis has seen coming and has been waiting to see mature into a champion.
That moment might be coming soon.
Safin showed off his many-splendored talents—135 mph serves, crushing groundstrokes, a wall-climbing retrieval of an overhead - during the afternoon to reach the semis in a performance reminiscent of Sampras at 19.
Infamous already for breaking more rackets than anyone else, the 20-year-old Russian kept his temper in check and his errors down as he beat Germany’s Nicolas Kiefer 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3.
In advancing to a Grand Slam semifinal for the first time, the No. 6 Safin gave the open crowd a glimpse of what all the excitement has been about among those who have watched him over the past few years.
No one else among the new generation of players seeking to take over from the likes of Sampras and Andre Agassi and Patrick Rafter possesses the combination of serving and groundstroke power, coupled with size and athleticism that the 6-foot-4 Safin has.
Those were all on display against the 14th-seeded Kiefer, especially in key moments when the momentum the match shifted.
Down 3-2 in the third-set tiebreaker, Safin drilled a pair of 130 mph service winners, then picked up the decisive minibreak with a two-fisted backhand that Kiefer netted.
In the fourth set, Safin refused to yield to his frustration at missed opportunities on several break points and finally broke Kiefer to 4-2 after five deuces.
Then came the most spectacular shot of the match. Eager to break back, Kiefer hammered an overhead that bounced off the court and was headed to the USTA president’s box. Safin leaped and nearly scaled the back wall to catch up to the ball, lobbed it back, and watched in relief as Kiefer’s next overhead landed in the net.
“I was just trying to fight,” Safin said. “I was going for everything. At least he knows that I’m going to fight until the end. Otherwise, he can get his confidence back, and somehow he can make a break. I don’t want to play five sets, so I was running everywhere. I was lucky that I catch that ball.”
The crowd gave Safin a long ovation and he went on to close out the match, dropping only one more point on serve the rest of the way.
Safin hasn’t always fought for every ball. He was fined $2,000 for tanking the last set in a three-set loss to Grant Stafford in the first round of the Australian Open in January.
Safin’s talent was never a question, but his ability to handle his emotions was. He busted 48 rackets last year and thinks he’s up to 35 or 36 this year. His fines, he said, have totaled nearly $10,000. But he’s been on good behavior so far at the Open, breaking only one in the first round.
“I’m a new man,” he said with a wry smile.