Well, Roger Federer may join the ranks of the immortals someday. Just maybe not today, and maybe not alone. In a bruising 4-1/2 hour match, Marat Safin showed the tennis world how you win against the invincible Roger.

You simply outbludgeon him from the baseline, you hunt everything down he throws at you, you serve awesomely (Safin’s serve percentage was about 80% through most of the first set). You come to net at every chance. And you keep your cool when calls go against you, often wrongly, as they have repeatedly during this tournament.

Both players had fits of temper and a bit of the old racket tossing, how could you not in a match like this of such nerve-wracking intensity? But the nobility of the occasion kept both men honest and plugged into the task at hand. A gracious and warm shaking of hands was the appropriate ending. After all, they brought out absolutely the best there was in each other today.

Pete Sampras was quoted the other day as saying Roger is the best mover by far on the court. Marat Safin may be the next fastest, faster perhaps than Lleyton Hewitt. Roger would drive a ball into a corner where it seemed impossible for Marat to retrieve it, yet he did over and over. It hardly seems fair to possess so much power and yet move like he’s 4’6″, not 6’4″.

Mats Wilander commented that Federer needed to see more serve and volley thrown at him. He predicted that Marat Safin’s game could do that more effectively than Andre Agassi’s. Today, that happened.

A rather unusual thing also occurred with the men’s semifinals. The top four seeds actually made it through. Lleyton Hewitt added ten pounds of muscle so he could be the one to take it to Roger. Andre Agassi lost ten pounds so he could move to those fantastic deep corner shots of Roger’s. Andy Roddick fired one coach and hired another to find the magic formula he could use.

But at the end of the day – and hopefully a ton of more days to come – Marat Safin is the man who will prove to be Roger Federer’s major competitor over the years. Because he’s the only one of those top three who can stay consistently in Roger’s face.

Roger needs that, and the men’s game needs it too. Much as I personally am a fan of his and love to see him win, it would be sad to see the game become his own private shooting gallery. I don’t think Andy Roddick will be able to stay up with Federer. His game has added variety but not enough to consistently bother Roger. Ditto Lleyton Hewitt, in spite of the new muscles.

Today Safin was the Giant Killer, and I for one am feeling very pleased about the state of men’s tennis tonight.

A Wake Up Call For the Williams Sisters

After watching Venus Williams lose her match to Australia’s Alicia Molik and Serena Williams claw her way back from losing the first set in her win over Maria Sharapova, it occurs to me that you can’t win a women’s Grand Slam event now on a part-time tennis schedule.

It used to be you could. Up until about a year or so ago, the women’s field was not that strong and only a few women dominated the game. Watching much of women’s tennis is really pretty boring I think, because the first week is usually about the top two or three women lording it over the rest. Absolute blowouts really, you can’t even call them matches.

Roger Federer likes to say that a tournament doesn’t begin for him until the second week. Well, with women’s tennis, that happens all the time. Nothing begins in women’s tennis until about the quarterfinals.

How galling that must be for the other women. The Williams sisters could go off and pursue their outside interests and still play the Slams and win them.

But now the rest of the field has caught up to them in a major way and the sisters may have to adjust. Everyone is gymning themselves into oblivion, pumping iron, training longer. Chubby little girls are now morphing into trim Amazons.

ESPN announcer Mary Carillo thinks the Williams sisters can dominate again if they improve their serves to where they once were. But to do that they need to play more tournaments. And to play more tournaments they need to rededicate themselves to the game, full-time.

Venus and Serena were tossing in serves that seemed consistent enough, but they were about three-quarters the speed of what they needed to be. Their opponents are no longer intimidated.

Alicia Molik can now join those ranks of the Unintimidated. She’s a big, powerful blond of Polish descent with a formidable serve, a huge ground game based around her big forehand, and a ballsy kind of attitude that can help her hang in through the tough patches of a match. She took it to Venus Williams. Venus probably looked over the net and saw a game oddly reflective of what her own once was.

Fashion design is all well and good but Venus can pursue that when she’s retired. Right now she needs to remember that an athlete’s life is a fragile, short-lived thing and grab onto it with both hands. One wonders if her enthusiasm is quite there fully.

With Serena the enthusiasm is still there, judging by the leaps of joy she performed after she beat Sharapova in an excellent 3-set match. For her, this was a final of sorts, a juicy little tidbit of revenge on Sharapova who won the year-end championship in November that Serena should have won.

Hopefully their seasons will see them staying healthy. That’s the first step for the Williams sisters. The next is playing, playing and then more playing.

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