- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 26, 2002

MELBOURNE, Australia For his 22nd birthday tomorrow (tonight EST), Marat Safin gets a chance at a second Grand Slam tournament championship.

He'll play Thomas Johansson in the Australian Open final that day. Safin credits a cloudburst for helping him get that far.

"I needed that break, and God gave it to me," said Safin, who was trailing Tommy Haas 2-1 in sets yesterday when the rain came, giving him a 50-minute rest while the stadium roof was closed.

After a massage and some coaching in the locker room, Safin came back for a 6-7 (5), 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-0, 6-2 semifinal victory. Haas won only 11 points in the fourth set after the rain.

Without the rain, "I had no chance to win," said the ninth-seeded Safin, who ousted Pete Sampras in the fourth round.

"I was lucky, believe me."

Defending champion Jennifer Capriati was to play three-time champion Martina Hingis in the women's final today (last night EST).

Safin said his legs were dragging in the 95-degree heat against Haas before the rain delay.

"I couldn't do anything. I couldn't move," the Russian said. But when play resumed, Safin added, "I served well and I did the right things."

More 90-degree heat is forecast for the final, with a chance of rain.

"I hope it will rain again," Safin said.

He isn't worried that Johansson, who won his semifinal against Jiri Novak on Thursday night, had an extra day to rest.

Johansson, seeded 16th, had never advanced past the fourth round of a Grand Slam event until this one. "I'm a little bit of an underdog," he said, even before he knew who his final opponent would be.

Although Safin said the rain saved him, Haas was starting to feel fatigue in his legs, too. "I don't think the break helped me much," he said.

"When I came back out on court, I just kind of had to start over a little bit and he came out on fire. It just didn't go my way after that. I was hoping in the fifth set maybe to boost it up again a little bit mentally … but my legs were not there any more," said the 23-year-old German, who broke into the men's top 10 for the first time last year.

Safin's legs should have been fresher. He needed only 28 minutes to win his quarterfinal Wednesday when Wayne Ferreira pulled out with an abdominal strain. Haas played four sets to beat Marcelo Rios.

During the rain delay, which stretched the match to 4 hours, 28 minutes, Safin said he received advice from Amit Naor, a former player from Israel, and another friend. Coach Mats Wilander did not make the trip.

"They explained to me very simply what I have to do," he said. "I started to return the serve, to read it better. I did exactly what they said."

Coaching is banned while a player is on court, but there is no rule against getting advice in the locker room.

After beating Sampras to win the U.S. Open in 2000, Safin struggled early last year with injuries. He reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and the semifinals at the U.S. Open in 2001 before losing to Sampras.

In 19 previous Grand Slam tournaments, Haas had been past the fourth round only once, when he reached the Australian Open semifinals in 1999.

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