Safin revives Wimbledon glory days to flatten weary Djokovic
No 3 seed sent crashing out of Wimbledon as Russian rolls back the years
It was the day the Russian bear bit back. Marat Safin has suffered so many blows to his pride in recent years that a lesser man might have opted for an easier life, but the former world No 1's refusal to accept that his best days were behind him was finally rewarded here yesterday.
After beating Novak Djokovic 6-4, 7-6, 6-2 on Centre Court, Safin said that he could not remember the last time he had played as well.
Dragged down by injuries, the two-times Grand Slam champion had been in apparently irreversible decline, but the way in which he brushed aside the world's third best player justified his self-belief. On a surface on which he has looked uncomfortable in the past, Safin pummelled a curiously out-of-sorts Djokovic into submission with his crunching ground strokes and sledge-hammer serves.
When Safin won the 2000 US Open at the age of 20 you might have imagined the 6ft 4in Muscovite going on to dominate the game in the way he towers over most opponents. It never quite happened. He lost in the 2002 and 2004 finals of the Australian Open, where he briefly reignited the flame in 2005, winning his second Grand Slam title, but dropped out of the world's top 20 a year later, never to return.
You would need a team of sports psychologists and specialist doctors to define where it all went wrong. Safin can prowl around the court with all the menace of a Russian grizzly and has a temper to match (Djokovic told a post-match press conference yesterday that Safin was "known for his mental instability") and failing to control his emotions has sometimes proved costly. Time has also taken its toll in terms of injuries, his career having been peppered by enforced lay-offs.
The world No 75's fall from grace was underlined when he played his first-round match against Fabio Fognini on Monday. "I played on Court 11, which is almost in another club," said Safin, who has never lost his sense of humour. "You can't make any Hawk-Eye challenges there and the chair umpire might be half-asleep."
Djokovic has had an outstanding year, capped by his first Grand Slam title in Australia, but on this occasion he looked tired and stale. Surprised by the pace of Safin's shots, the 21-year-old Serb hurried his own and regularly miscued, particularly on his backhand.
Safin easily read Djokovic's serve and the world No 3's movement was uncertain. Like Andy Murray, he has switched shoes this summer because he was slipping too much on grass, but he still looked unsure of his footing and slid around as if still playing on clay.
Safin got the better of three successive breaks of serve in the middle of the first set and after a closer second set took the tie-break with something to spare. Having taken a 3-0 lead in the third, he completed victory by breaking yet again thanks to two successive double faults.
Djokovic walked disconsolately to the net but gave the warmest of embraces to an opponent who was one of his idols when growing up. "I wasn't tired physically, but I felt tired mentally," Djokovic admitted afterwards. "It's been a long season, even though it's only halfway through."
Djokovic said he would take the opportunity to go on holiday in the hope of recharging his batteries in time for the hard-court season. How he fares next will be a significant test, for this was his first major setback after 18 months of almost unbroken success. He had reached the last four or better of every Grand Slam tournament since last year's Australian Open and his assault on the rankings would have seen him replace Rafael Nadal as world No 2 if he had beaten the Spaniard in the French Open semi-finals earlier this month.
Safin, in contrast, was winning a second successive match for only the third time this year. The Russian's frustrations became so great last autumn that he took a mid-season break to climb Cho-Oyu, the world's sixth highest mountain, on the Nepal-Tibet border. Even that backfired. Exhausted on his return, he called an early halt to his season and made himself unavailable for Russia's Davis Cup final against the United States, saying other players were in better form.
However, Safin said he had been working "unbelievably hard" recently. He even chose to stay in London practising rather than go to watch his sister play in the French Open final three weeks ago.
Grass has been Safin's least favoured surface. When reminded about some of the uncomplimentary things he has said about Wimbledon in the past he replied: "What did I say? The strawberries are too expensive? That's true. You don't get enough of them for dessert here."
He added: "I played well because the courts have been getting slower and slower. They were really fast about eight years ago, but now you can play from the baseline. Nobody gets even close to the net."
Safin will now prepare to play Andreas Seppi tomorrow. "I don't think we'll be playing on [the practice courts] at Aorangi Park, though that wouldn't be the worst place I've played," he said with a smile. "I've played in really terrible places, so it doesn't matter."
Safin's quarter of the draw has opened up significantly. David Nalbandian and Ivo Karlovic had already gone and Juan Carlos Ferrero followed them yesterday. Marcos Baghdatis, a straight-sets winner over Thomas Johansson, could now meet Safin in the quarter-finals.
Roger Federer maintained his confident progress in the same half of the draw with a 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 victory over Sweden's Robin Soderling. The world No 1 now plays France's Marc Gicquel, but Fernando Gonzalez, seeded to meet the defending champion in the fourth round, lost in four sets to Simone Bolelli. David Ferrer continued his progress towards a quarter-final meeting with Federer by beating Igor Andreev.