They’ve been rotating the DVD, Lleyton Hewitt – The Other Side, recently on The Tennis Channel. From my viewing, Hewitt is who he is regardless of how you portray him. He’s a brash, “f.u. mate, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do” kind of guy who scratched and clawed his way to the Australian Final last year against Marat Safin. What’s wrong with that? On the DVD, you see Hewitt warmly congratulating Safin after Safin beat him. Safin is apologetic and humble, he looks puzzled at himself.

That’s because, much of the time, Safin is his own unquiet witness. He can’t control his temper and seems bemused at his own actions. It’s like he’s having an out of body experience. You expect to tune in to ESPN and see an extra little body with wild hair looking down at Safin while throwing its hands up in the air and repeatedly crying, “What is he doing?”

You expect to tune in to ESPN and see an extra little body with wild hair looking down at Safin while throwing its hands up in the air and repeatedly crying, “What is he doing?”

Safin is back on the tour after a seven month layoff due to a knee injury and his third round opponent here at Indian Wells is his fellow Russian, Nikolay Davydenko. Davydenko is the anti-Marat in a number of ways. Safin is solidly build with wild hair, it’s tied into a Samurai topknot at the moment, who is likely to explode at any moment; Davydenko is slight and balding and seldom shows much emotion except to stare at a linesperson and perhaps brood a bit when he’s unhappy with a call. Safin has a big game, you hear a huge “thud” when he hits the ball, and his consistency is, well, inconsistent; Davydenko is a steady hitter and excellent defensive player who doesn’t give points away. Safin has a big serve that can get him out of trouble when necessary; Davydenko does not.

It doesn’t help Davydenko that most Russians still consider Safin their top player despite the fact that Davydenko is ranked number five in the world. Poor guy, he doesn’t even get respect from me. I’m interested in Safin here, not him.

Davydenko is not only steady but he’s smart. With Safin serving at 3-3 in the first set, Safin hit three straight errors to give Davydenko two break points. Many players force the issue resulting in errors that let their opponent back into the game. Knowing that his opponent is Safin, Davydenko kept the ball in play until Safin made another error and lost his serve.

After two more errors to start the next game, here it comes. Safin smashes his racket and gets a code violation for racket abuse. Maybe Safin could find a twelve step group for racket abuse. Still, after a double fault and a few loose shots by Davydenko, something he can’t afford, Safin got the break to get back on serve. For a few strokes. On his third straight error in the next game he screamed at himself in Russian. It seemed to bother Davydenko as much as Safin. They exchanged breaks for the last five games of the set to get to the tiebreaker with only one Safin explosion, a ball hit as hard as he could off the backboard behind his opponent expertly missing the ballgirl and linesman. No casualties, no code violation.

Despite his outbursts, Safin thinks that his layoff helped him. “I solved a lot of problems that I had outside of tennis, ” he said after the match. “Actually, it was the right thing. It happened to me at the right time.” If this match is any indication, he’s right. Safin kept the ball in play long enough during the tiebreak to outlast Davydenko and take the first set then he survived a titanic service game at the beginning of the second set in which he faced five break points.

He lost the second set on a break but that may have come with some bad luck. Facing two break points at 1-2, he thought his serve was incorrectly called out. No outburst, he just walked up to the net and pleaded with the lineperson, “Sweetheart, you can’t miss these balls, it’s very important for me.” Fair enough.

He was down a break in the third set too but fought back to break Davydenko twice in a row to win the match, 7-6(5), 3-6, 6-4.

Andre Agassi had the same experience with his mid-career break. He resolved some of the psychological issues in his life and went on to become a tennis ambassador and all-round good guy. I don’t expect that of Safin. Not to take anything away from Andre but it’s more fun to pick apart a tortured soul. I just hope he’s improved enough to join Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick in a dynamic top four that would give majors the buzz they deserve.

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