- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2000

NEW YORK No death-defying comebacks. No celebratory racket smashes. No victory laps.

This time around, Todd Martin didn't need them.

With help from a large, supportive crowd and some timely service breaks, Martin gained the semifinals of the U.S. Open by beating unseeded Thomas Johansson 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 last night before 22,430 at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Martin's victory came less than 48 hours after his epic late-night triumph over Carlos Moya, a victory that saw Martin fend off a match point, erase a two-sets-to-love deficit and ultimately exchange a round of high fives with the small group of fans who remained through the 1:22 a.m. finish.

"I was afraid I wasn't going to be able to get it going," Martin said moments after his quarterfinal match ended. "But the energy from the crowd really helped."

Martin's next opponent will be No. 6 seed Marat Safin, who ousted No. 14 Nicolas Kiefer 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3 in an afternoon match. If he beats the hard-hitting Safin, Martin will have his second consecutive shot at an Open title. Martin dropped a five-set match to Andre Agassi in last year's final.

"I would like to walk off the court without holes in me," Martin said of Safin. "He hits the ball so hard."

While Johansson actually hit more aces than Martin (23-18) and more winners (49-40), he was unable to overcome a series of costly service breaks, including two in the fourth set.

"I got a couple of good breaks in the fourth, and it lifted my spirits," Martin said. "My body followed."

In Safin, the reserved and unflappable Martin will face his antithesis: A outlandishly talented, outrageously temperamental and occasionally goofy enigma who is as likely to beat himself or his racket as his opponents.

By his own estimate, Safin has smashed roughly 80 rackets on tour over the last two years, incurring thousands of dollars in fines.

"If you can pay my fines, it's OK," he joked with reporters after the match. "I can break many. Guys, for $10,000, do you know what I can do? You don't want to know."

Against Kiefer, Safin was mostly sedate, substituting 130 mph-plus serves and whiplash returns for tempestuous antics.

"[When] I'm completely stopped on the court, when I don't know what I'm doing, I try to push myself, try to hit [my] racket, to get angry, to get back into the match," said Safin, a 20-year-old Russian whose thundering serves and formidable athletic ability have drawn comparisons to Pete Sampras. "But when I'm playing good, I don't have to do this."

Trailing 3-5 with Kiefer serving for the first set, Safin crushed a backhand crosscourt winner to make it 4-5, broke Kiefer once more to take a 6-5 lead, then ripped off four straight points on serve to take the set 7-5.

In the fourth set, Safin again pounced on Kiefer's service game, earning a break for a 4-2 lead and pushing Kiefer to triple match point at 5-2.

"It wasn't trouble with my serve," said Kiefer, who served 13 aces but was broken four times in the match. "Marat played great returns."

Kiefer made a brief rally, hitting an ace and winning a pair of long points to make it 5-3. But Safin was relentless in his next service game, running off three consecutive points, and Kiefer could only stab his racket at Safin's 131 mph second serve on match point.

"His confidence is getting bigger and bigger," Kiefer said. "I think he has a great chance to get in the final, and a good chance to win."

In reaching his first Grand Slam semifinal, Safin added another unpredictable chapter to a helter-skelter year that has seen him:

• Draw a $2,000 fine for tanking at the Australian Open.

• Advance to the quarterfinals of the French Open.

• Go for months without a coach after splitting with mentor Andrei Chesnokov.

In the second set, Safin flashed a bit of his trademark impetuousness, hitting a showy behind-the-back volley for no apparent reason and attempting an absurd between-the-legs shot from the baseline to lose a break point.

"What are you going to do?" Safin said.

Earlier in the day, Serena Williams withdrew from women's doubles play, citing left-foot sesmoiditis, a chronic inflammation of the small bone located at the joint of the left big toe.

Williams likely will still compete in the Olympics in Australia, where she is scheduled to play doubles for the United States with sister Venus, who also was her partner here.

In another Olympic development, Brazilian star Gustavo Kuerten announced that he will play in Sydney, one day after saying he would withdraw from the competition due to a sponsorship dispute.

Serena Williams, who along with Venus was set to play No. 10 seed doubles team Cara Black and Elena Likhovtseva in a semifinal match yesterday, lost to Lindsay Davenport 6-4, 6-2 in the women's quarterfinals Wednesday night.

In a testy post-match interview session, Serena did not mention her foot injury but did take exception to Davenport and top seed Martina Hingis, who both joked that they did not want to see an all-Williams final.

"I'm sure a lot of people never want to see an all-Williams final, because everyone doesn't really like us." she said. "It's going to happen in the future eventually. Nobody's going to be able to stop it."

Venus, the No. 3 seed, can advance to tomorrow's championship match by defeating Hingis tonight.

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