The Mouse had more than his tail stepped on in the final of the Australian Open Sunday. The mouse being Lleyton Hewitt, who lost a four set final to Marat Safin that could best epitomize the phrase “power tennis.” The fourth set especially featured shot making that was not only spectacular to look at, but sounded like the cannons at the end of the 1812 overture.

Bang thud thumph whumpf. Lleyton gets pumped up watching the Rocky movies, or so we hear. And the boxing analogy would certainly hold up for this match. But as Patrick McEnroe commented, it was a mismatch. You had a heavyweight against a middleweight guy, and eventually we all know how this one will turn out.

The first set gave no indication of this. If anything, it could have turned into a blowout for Hewitt. He won it, 6-1. I was about to turn the TV off at this point, figuring Safin couldn’t get to his local Starbucks in time for a good jolt to start his day off right. The other sets would be just as bad.

But Safin kept his cool, and that, as it turned out, was the best shot in his repertoire. He clawed his way back into it, took advantage of Hewitt’s own moments of letdown, and then really started hammering the ball by the fourth set. Hewitt covered a lot of court, but today the balls flew past him even faster than his legs could keep up.

In a way I almost felt sorry for him and his smaller size. But only for a moment. Hewitt does not endear himself even to his own Aussie fans, who surely rooted for him as a representative of Australian sport, but clearly they have misgivings about their lad. He is not truly One of Us the way the Aussies of yore were, or even Patrick Rafter from more recent times. The guys in the locker room don’t like him one whit. He’s a brittle, testy little critter with an unfortunate habit of fist-pumping his way through matches when his opponents double fault or otherwise screw up. It’s ok when YOU make a brilliant shot, but it’s pretty embarrassing to watch him exult over other’s misfortune. No one likes that.

After a linesman called a Hewitt ball out, Hewitt got on his case then made a gesture at the linesman after the game was over signifying he should try opening his eyes, perhaps. The crowd did not seem to care for this, especially since Shot Spot showed the call was correct. Applause for Safin seemed to expand after that.

But the crowd would have done that anyway. The Aussies know and love their tennis, and they fully understood how thoroughly Safin was putting their guy through his paces.

Even the girlfriends were drawn into the fray, at least visually. The split screen showed the blonde lady friend of Hewitt alongside the dark-haired girlfriend of Safin, both looking understandably tense and worried.

But not enough to spoil their beauty, if the girls in question are really beautiful. My partner happened to glance at the screen at one of these moments of feminine loveliness. He saw the blonde, he saw the brunette. His pick should have clued me in to who would win the match finally.

“That’s Safin’s girlfriend?” he asks. “Wow, she should be tied to a chair and licked until she stops moving.”

Do the girls get to go out later and mud wrestle? Or, being that we are in Australia, do they try drinking one another under the table? One never hears about the girlfriends after a match is over. How do they fare, I wonder.

Perhaps the most significant stat was that Safin won 20 of 23 service points in the fourth set. He had only six double faults in the tournament. He went from two aces in the first set to nine by the third.

It was a formidable display of raw power. But contained still, because Safin kept his head when he was down. He hung in through his bad stretches until Hewitt went downhill a bit himself, then powered his way back into things. Safin didn’t hit the ball, he was crushing it.

It was an exhilarating match to watch, I would have not liked Safin to lose. After beating Federer in such a classic semifinal, he virtually HAD to win the final. It would have been a horrible letdown for everyone if he had gone out in three sets to Hewitt.

As it was, he has positioned himself right back in the heart of the men’s game. He is the only worthy challenger to Roger Federer.

Serena Williams resurrected herself in the women’s final against Lindsay Davenport the day before.

Marat Safin has undergone the same treatment and men’s tennis can only be a lot healthier for it.

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