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Tennis

Safin out of another U.S. Open

One-time champ has struggled to find his game; Wimbledon winner Sharapova advances.

By wire services
Published September 1, 2004

NEW YORK - Four years ago, Marat Safin marched onto the center court at the National Tennis Center and defeated Pete Sampras to capture the U.S. Open title. He was a Grand Slam champion at age 20.

It seems a lifetime ago.

Safin came into this year's Open seeded No. 13 and was sent home early, beaten Tuesday by Thomas Enqvist 7-6 (7-5), 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.

The famous Safin temper surfaced only occasionally. He seemed confused at times, shrugging his shoulders, and was unable to solve Enqvist, who once was ranked No. 4 in the world but dipped as low as No. 95 last year. Enqvist entered this tournament at No. 59.

Bradenton's Maria Sharapova nearly shared Safin's first-round exit. No reigning Wimbledon women's champion has lost in the first round of the U.S. Open, and Sharapova was just one game from that. Then she steeled herself to claim 12 of the last 14 points and got past Laura Granville 6-3, 5-7, 7-5.

Safin seemed on the road back to prominence this year when he reached the final of the Australian Open before losing to Roger Federer. After that, he failed to win back-to-back matches on hardcourt until reaching the quarterfinals at Cincinnati this month.

Then came the match against Enqvist and a quick exit at the Open.

"Believe me, I'm trying," Safin said, a grin creeping across his face. "If I would lie to myself, I would say it's Thomas' fault. But I don't want to lie to myself. A huge part of it is my fault, because I let him play well."

Sharapova escaped a quick exit after reclaiming her poise.

"My game went off for a while. I went to La-La Land," the 17-year-old Siberian-turned-Floridian said, "but I came back to earth."

Sharapova and Safin though weren't the only top players pushed to the limit on Day 2 at Flushing Meadows: 11th-seeded Rainer Schuettler lost, and 2003 runnerup Juan Carlos Ferrero and No. 5 Tim Henman needed five sets to advance.

One indication of how players slide from star to afterthought: While Sharapova was on the National Tennis Center's main stage, 2000-01 Open champ Venus Williams was in the last day-session match on another court.

Made to wait until after 8:30 p.m. to play, because she was scheduled to hit the court after Henman and Ferrero, Williams was broken while serving for the match but pulled out a 6-3, 7-6 (7-3) win over 64th-ranked Petra Mandula of Hungary.

Throughout Sharapova's match, photographers in their courtside pit trained their equipment on the 6-footer, who's represented by a modeling agency and recently signed a three-year deal with a cell phone company worth $4-million to $5-million. Most of the time, about 40 cameras followed her, and one or two followed Granville.

"It's all about the spirit," Sharapova said after her 2-hour, 9-minute adventure. "Hanging in there, and trying to do your best."

Defending champion Andy Roddick brought his best, hitting 12 aces and ending the second game with a 152 mph serve - 1 mph slower than his tour record and eclipsing the tournament mark of 143 mph registered by Greg Rusedski in 1997 and '99. Roddick topped Scoville Jenkins 6-0, 6-2, 6-2.

Two weeks ago, Jenkins became the first black player to win the USTA Boys' 18s National Championship.

For Henman, his poorest Slam results have come at the Open, so he can't call on past success to help. But battling a bad back that kept him off the practice courts for three days, Henman withstood 6-foot-10 Ivo Karlovic's 39 aces and toughed it out for more than 31/2 hours in a 7-6 (7-3), 6-7 (7-9), 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory. Ferrero had an even longer day, playing 41/2 hours to cobble together a 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (8-6), 6-7 (7-4), 6-3 win over Tomas Zib, who never has won a Grand Slam match.

Justine Henin-Hardenne began defense of her U.S. Open championship, defeating 15-year-old qualifier Nicole Vaidisova 6-1, 6-4. Vaidisova won her first tour title in Vancouver this month.

[Last modified September 1, 2004, 01:10:40]


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