Look out Wimbledon -- here comes Safin

An ominous development for the rest of the men’s field at Wimbledon: Marat Safin is beginning to find his footing on grass.

The mercurial Russian overcame his career-long aversion to lawn tennis on Monday and beat Paradorn Srichaphan of Thailand 6-2, 6-4, 6-4.

A first-round victory by a two-time Grand Slam champion might seem like no big deal. But Safin has advanced beyond the second round at Wimbledon only once, and after a first-round loss last year he said he was done with trying to win on grass.

Even when Safin won the Australian Open in January, he was unsure whether he would play at Wimbledon. Now he lurks as a threat to claim his second major title this year.

“After what I’ve seen, it looks like he’s getting more comfortable on the surface,” said 2003 runner-up Mark Philippoussis, who will play Safin in the second round on

Wednesday.
“He’s definitely finding his game a little more out there.”

Against Paradorn, the number five-seeded Safin moved well despite a knee injury that has hampered him in recent weeks and prompted him to plan a month-long layoff after Wimbledon. He had 46 winners and just 13 unforced errors, lost just 11 points on his first serve and was broken only once.

Safin, who has battled a slump on all surfaces in recent months, judged the performance his best since Australia.

“I felt really comfortable, actually, and really confident,” he said. “I wish I could play this level of tennis every day. I’m trying.”

With a rueful smile, Safin acknowledged that he still hates grass. He said he’s trying to change that with the help of coach Peter Lundgren, who has encouraged Safin to play more aggressively on the surface.

There were signs of progress at the grass event two weeks ago in Halle, Germany, where Safin won four matches before losing a three-set final to two-time defending Wimbledon champion Roger Federer.

“I felt really, really comfortable for some reason,” Safin said.

“That helped me to get the confidence, because it’s really important to get into the grass and to Wimbledon with something on your back.

“I need to hold these feelings, and I need to hold them for a long time, as long as I can. Because now it looks like I found my game. I found the confidence that I was missing for the past six months. Finally I have it. I’ll try not to lose it again.”

With a big serve, creative knack and willingness to charge the net, Safin has the game to win on grass. But he finds himself in the more difficult half of the draw, which includes Federer and 2002 champion Lleyton Hewitt.

The 1,93m Russian’s next hurdle will be 1,93m Aussie Philippoussis, who is mounting his latest career comeback. He received a wild card into the draw and opened by beating Karol Beck of Slovakia 7-5, 6-4, 6-2.

“He’s going to be tough for the second round, that’s for sure,” Safin said.

Philippoussis’ ranking fell from ninth to 106th in 2004, and after reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon, he went 0-5 the rest of the year. He has won just four of nine matches in 2005, but with one of the sport’s biggest serves, he remains dangerous on grass.

“Being such a good surface for me, it definitely is an opportunity for me to go out there and start this sort of comeback thing in a positive way,” he said.

The top-ranked Federer extended his grass-court winning streak to 30 matches, including 15 at the All England Club, by beating Paul-Henri Mathieu of France 6-4, 6-2, 6-4. No. 3-seeded Hewitt hit 19 aces and beat Christophe Rochus of Belgium 6-3, 6-3, 6-1.

In women’s play, top-ranked Lindsay Davenport needed just 41 minutes to beat Russia’s Alina Jidkova 6-0, 6-2. Other winners included number three Amelie Mauresmo, number 15 Kim Clijsters, US Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and 2004 French Open champion Anastasia Myskina, who trailed 3-0 in the final set but beat 18-year-old qualifier Katerina Bohmova of the Czech Republic 5-7, 7-6 (4), 6-4. - Sapa-AP

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