Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder.
Even though strong-felt opinions get flailed around nowadays as a rash – and often in a rush of mindless kneejerk reactions by self-proclaimed experts – one would be ill-advised to wander off too much into tunnel vision as it could only prove someone’s negligence in their often superior perceived bubbled arguments. This happens on every topic of course, and sad to say tennis fans are not immune to this pitfall.
There simply are no plea deals when it comes to tennis discussions, especially on social media, but isn’t that exactly the fun of talking about lists such as these. People feel so passionately about a certain match or player that one’s perception can easily get foggy. So I myself indeed am aware that I too am guilty of committing this heinous crime, as I make my case for the no.1 entry on this daring countdown.
Also I will make this promise to you now: this paragraph will be the last one where superlatives get thrown around like candy – just like the Force was treated in the latest Disney modulated version of the once great Star Wars saga. Yes, a saga where the phrase ‘May the Force be with you’ has been rendered redundant as seemingly every inhabitant of the galaxy has inexplicably become acquainted with what once was an intriguing mystifying esoteric concept. They truly tried to sugarcoat Episode VIII by turning the Jedi legacy into forgetful superheroes in a foolish attempt to sweeten the pot that backfired horribly. Oh, by the way, if you haven’t seen that flick yet, these were spoilers!
So where did that uncalled for analogy originate from? Well, I just want to spare you from that unearthly feeling of misguided adoration, so I will only use transcendent wording where I deem it absolutely necessary when talking about the Federer vs Safin 2005 Australian Open classic. But If I get sidetracked in my story where I can’t curb my enthusiasm any longer…well, then that’s just my bad!
If you would ask me right now to describe the 2005 Australian Open semi in one phrase it would be just this: Uncompromising, relentless, sustained tennis bullying! To compare that framing in short with what we’ve read in our countdown so far, the Djokovic vs Nadal 2012 final was an avalanche of masterful defensive shot-making and mental resilience; the Sampras-Agassi 2000 clash was a titanic struggle of contrasting styles and personalities, with that famous tiebreak; the Safin vs Agassi 2004 brawl a display of unadulterated attacking prowess; the Fedal 2009 final deemed the passing of the torch match and the 2017 Fedal final dubbed appropriately the legacy affair complete with injury time-outs.
In fairness, and especially at the time this match was played in, the 2005 Federer vs Safin semifinal fits all the aforementioned categories seamlessly. It is above all of course remembered as a masterclass of no holds barred aggressive power hitting but it had incredible ad-libbed defense, a feeling of a powershift in men’s tennis where Federer’s legacy was inherently on the line, a clear yin-yang disparity in personas, physical ailments, battle of wills and a tiebreak for the ages to boot.
It simply had it all but its cornerstone was and always will be the uncanny attacking tennis both guys presented to the world in early 2005. Just remember this, as you contemplate whether this should be on no.1 or not: the quality of play never wavered. It never dipped. Where other matches on this list may have had their patches of play where its level dropped off to a human level, this match simply has no weaknesses to pry on. There just was no patch of play during this 4 hour and 28 minutes marathon that isn’t worth reliving, no sequence of shots that indicated a diminishing trend. None whatsoever.
So, I wanted to get that out of the way, before we begin on this nostalgic journey together. Even though opinions matter – and that’s a good thing – there’s no disputing that beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. But the exemption is made here that this match is undoubtedly, unquestionably disgustingly beautiful, and perhaps the most beautiful match ever to have been played Down Under.
As this is a countdown I would be remiss to not name all the previous installments, just like my predecessors have done before me. This time I will include the writers as well, as I feel they deserve to be mentioned for all their efforts
The players enter the Arena
The calendar hits the 27th of January in 2005. Nightfall is upon us and the Melbourne skyline is glistening red and poised for the culmination of two weeks of riveting tennis. The courts at Melbourne Park are laid with a glowy green Rebound Ace surface that suits the two matadors perfectly. This Thursday in January is also a certain Marat Safin’s birthday, who turns 25, and the birthday boy is more than ready for his present.
Not that his opponent, world no.1 Roger Federer, is going to gift him a spot in the final showdown, as their head to head reads a telling lopsided 6-1 in favor of the Swiss king. If Marat is going to overthrow this indestructible tennis cyborg he will need to keep a lid on his own fire-breathing shenanigans while at the same time try and unravel Federer’s bionic game before he can finally unwrap his present.
And what about this Federer? Well, the history books don’t lie. Federer in 2005 is the ultimate tennis player. He has just enjoyed a trophy-laden 2004, losing just six matches, none to a top 10 player and picked up three Slams (all without a coach!?!), including the 2004 Australian Open where he beat the same bulky Russian comprehensively in straights. But that year, Safin had two literally breathtaking five set epics that wore him down, of which entry #9, the blast-fest versus Agassi, was one of them. This year, however, both players are fresh, and starving for success at the opening Slam of the year. Federer was warned.
Here is a full match highlight that spans just under an hour to help you captivate the mood.
You might want to make several cups of tea before continuing your read. This might take a while…
Federer starts the match with a second serve and although Safin overcooks the forehand on the very first point his intentions are made crystal clear to the undisputed world no.1. The imposing no.4 seed is already hugging the baseline like he’s willing to make sweet love to it all night long if need be. He deploys his primary weapon on the second point in devastating manner, stretching Federer out wide with his backhand cross to redirect the ball down the line to level at 15-15. As Federer closes out the first service game with an ace down the T he makes his presence felt in Safin’s service game with a smooth looking inside-out backhand winner from the middle of the court. Federer manages to get to deuce but two points later a body serve sets up the short ball which means happy hunting for Safin’s backhand once again.
The next couple of games sees both men’s ace count ratcheting up. Their dominance on serve is a daunting proposition for the returner to deal with. At 3 all however, Safin steps it up. As he is blasting returns off both ground strokes Federer’s pick-ups are near ethereal, deflecting every would be winner with a cool suave exterior as if he isn’t enduring heavy artillery. In the first point he rifles a demoralizing half-volley backhand pass up the line. At 15-15 Safin manages to wrong-foot Federer enough to finish with a thumping smash but Federer’s fearhand produces two consecutive winners that prevents Safin from getting to deuce. 4-3 Federer.
After getting to 0-30 on the next service game Federer mouths a quick ‘Fuck it’ when he lets Safin off the hook with a basic backhand slice error. Still he would get a first sniff at a break point. But then Safin decides to test the speed gun again. Booming down a potent first serve out wide which Federer shanks in the net. Makes you think: if only the Swiss wielded a bigger racket in 2005…
At 4-5 play is heating up, almost matching the sweltering Australian summer climate. It is now that Safin’s play gets sultry as well. With arguably the shot of the set – not the match mind you – Safin, pressed way back behind the baseline, is just about to reassert his court positioning when Federer plays right back at Safin and gets burned. Safin has never struck a backhand as pure before or since. A laser down the line whistles past an applauding Federer.
Right now the crowd in the Rod Laver Arena is buzzing. They are getting served goosebump tennis as the realization dawns something very special is unfolding in front of their very eyes. A couple of games later Safin is serving to get to a tiebreak. Federer isn’t doing himself any favors as he misses an easy forehand to get to 0-30. The defending champ lets out a howl of dismay and anguish. At 30-30 though, Federer’s incomparable stab half-volley at the baseline catches Safin off guard and brings him to his first set point. Nonchalantly, it’s wiped away by Safin’s moneymaker ace out wide.
On the second break point, Federer commits a slice error but on the third, Safin drives his backhand wide and promptly throws his racket spinning up towards the Melbourne sky in disgust. It’s the first real volatile reaction coming from the usually more combustible Marat Safin. Federer walks to his chair. First set 7-5 to the defending champion. Business as usual.
The second set commences with a ridiculous full swing drive volley forehand winner from Federer after a cracking serve. With Federer’s confidence soaring and superior game unshackled it would be an immense Houdini-act from Safin to get the cuffs back on this potential runaway Fed Express. At 1-1 however, Safin gets his much coveted break, neutralizing Federer’s backhand slice until it breaks down into the net. He consolidates the break with one scintillating rally after another.
Safin’s resurgence means Federer switches to net-game mode. But as he ticks off winners with consummate easy he still can’t grab the momentum back from Safin, who enjoys a solid rhythm on serve. At 4-3, 30-0 with the Russian serving, Federer throws in the lob to eventually finish off a delicious rally with a rush to the net forehand inside-out winner. He gets a look at a break back but Safin’s serve and backhand inflict the decisive damage once more. The level of play is just insane. High-octane ball bashing tennis right out of the top shelf.
At 5-4 Safin serves for the set and Federer throws everything at him. Nasty slices up the line, backhands that skid off the baseline. Safin is staying alive after having to retrieve multiple hooked Federer forehands, again and again. But Safin wouldn’t be Safin if he didn’t finish off the set with a flourish. Sending the Swiss roadrunner wide to extract an anticipated dipping forehand pass, Safin comes up with a sumptuous forehand pick-up at the net as nonchalantly as you like. As Safin walks back to his chair, throwing his broad shoulders back and forth, his demeanor and charisma crunches like a bulldozer, threatening everything in its path. There is nothing to split the two juggernaughts’ level of tennis anymore. It is all square. Second set to Safin: 6-4.
A lapse of concentration costs Safin dearly on his own service game early in the third and Federer quickly gets his nose out in front, leading 2-0. A couple of games later Safin is doing all he can to avoid the double break. With Federer serving at 3-1 15-15 a backhand return error sees Safin reaching his boiling point, hurling his racket away to show his frustration. A formidable rally at 30-30 that Safin seizes with a forehand down the line sets up his first break point of the third set. Undeterred, Federer then makes a bold move by coming forward and successfully cuts off the cross court angle with an acute angled deft drop volley.
On the second time of asking Safin clinches the break back with yet another screaming backhand down the line. As things go on serve for the next couple of games Federer reaches that solitary peak of his powers again at 3-4 30-30. Federer strangulates Safin with his depth on the forehand return before using his full body torqueing abilities to spike the rpm count on the ball. The result is a smashing inside-in forehand winner that forces the younger McEnroe brother in the commentator booth to spout “He absolutely munched on that forehand!” Still, Federer can’t convert and Safin levels the match at 4-4.
The world no.1 himself faces break point danger in the next game at 30-40 but positive play sets up the relatively easy backhand volley. Another break point goes begging for the Russian as well and a much needed hold for the champion follows. Neither player’s serve at this point is in the clear. Both men are having to deal with tremendous returning from the opposite side.
Federer looks disheveled as one of his defensive sliced lobs gets called wide in the tenth game. As a matter of fact both men’s irritation levels are growing. Safin sends a ball airborne after a miss and Federer too, after hitting a forehand long while having the upper hand in the rally, screams at the top of his lungs. Two points later though, Federer’s return hits the baseline, setting up the easy shot for Federer to get to 15-40, two set points. Safin recoils back into his own self immediately, smashes the racket to the ground out of pure disgruntlement.
Safin recollects his thoughts, however, and comes up with a fabulous backhand cross court pass when he needs it most. On the second set point Safin falters. A long forehand means Federer takes the third set 7-5 and another ball goes flying up into the stands.
Into set four we go and a special set it is. For the first five games we see a lot of surprising serve & volley tactics being utilized. Still on serve, Federer edges ahead to 3-2 with yet another rush to the net to play the fake drop shot, completely leaving Safin stranded in no-man’s land. At 3-2 30-30 a rally unfolds that sums up the entire match to a T. Federer tries everything to outmaneuver Safin but eventually gets overpowered in calamitous fashion. An ominous sign of things to come. Safin is going from strength to strength and the Russian’s fear inducing energy is palpable inside Rod Laver Arena.
At 3 all and game point for Federer, the mercurial Swiss plays a magical lunged backhand drop volley that sets up the put away. He edges ahead once again: 4-3. Just two games clear of a hard-fought glorious victory. In the very next point Marat returns the favor when he himself dives for a backhand volley. Just a magnificent passage of play. A great forehand winner from Federer as he moves through the ball, followed up by an inside-out backhand return winner has Federer hoping again to break. But Safin seals the game with an audacious low driving forehand volley: 4-4.
The tenth game kicks off with an amazing rally. Federer has Safin on a string, sends him running left and right but out of nowhere the Russian comes up with a beasty forehand winner on the dead run that leaves Federer throwing his racket to the pavement in disbelief. A disconcerting trend sets in for Federer. He begins to epitomize a pandemonium being he swore to stay away from at all costs, at all times. As he starts mirroring Safin’s antics, he is no longer Federer. Safin notices, gazes upon the other side of the net. Seeing how Federer loses his cool, slowly but surely fuels his own passion and belief.
A couple of aces later and Safin extends his challenge a little longer as he levels to 5-5. The eleventh game is worth mentioning as it starts with a terrific low backhand volley from Federer. He holds with ease. Federer can’t dig himself out of the suffocating grip of shots coming from the Russian in the twelfth game as Safin punishes every short ball that is sent his way. Into a tiebreak we go.
As the pair trade mini-breaks Federer’s variety can’t help but start acting up. At 3-1 up he extends his lead with a drop shot out of nowhere. Feeling he might have dealt the definitive blow he clenches his fist and screams “YESSSSS!”. Before the change of ends Safin hammers down another ace for good measure but it only shows how much he really needs that first serve to come through. To illustrate that very case Federer steps in on the second serve delivery on the next point and yet again, flies an inside-out backhand return winner past an all of a sudden befuddled looking figure in Marat Safin.
But with Federer in the lead at 5-2 he loses both service points to Safin. Just when you think things can’t go crazier Safin’s service point at 5-5 ends with another drop shot from Federer that just drops absolutely dead. Now, Federer has match point, on his own serve. I’m lacking the vocabulary to describe how Safin saves it. Federer comes up with the surprise attack once again, this time a serve & volley. Safin sends Federer lunging twice for a backhand volley. On the second dive Federer manages somehow to drop it, Safin comes rushing in, plays the perfect lob to which Federer scrambles and pulls off the tweener that ends in the net. The Rod Laver Arena is giving the pair a standing ovation. Safin would try to lob Federer on numerous occasions during the course of this match and each time he would fail miserably. On match point down though, he concocted the shot to perfection.
As the dust settles, Safin’s return gives him the upper hand on the next point and finishes off the rally with a cracking volley: 7-6. He now holds set point on his own serve. The pressure being mounted on Federer proves to be too much as he hits one shanked backhand too many to send this classic into a decider after 3 hours and 8 minutes of divine hitting. What a spectacle.
Before the decider heads underway Federer receives treatment as he already suffered from blisters on the bottom of his left foot before the match. What troubles him the most seems to be some nasty nerve discomfort in the index finger of his right hand. Federer’s movement however still looks to be crisp and his talent still is uninhibited, indomitable. Fatigue is the decisive factor that comes into play. But we are not there yet.
Play resumes and the decider holds everything we could have wished for. The very highlight of this match comes in a very, very special third game, with Safin serving at deuce. Both men anticipate their opponent’s moves so well that a 30-shot rally unfolds – sent from above by the tennis Gods themselves – that will thrill the minds of tennis lovers for years to come. Safin ruffles Federer’s feathers by hitting corner to corner, stonewalling the Swiss with his gnarly backhand while Federer seeks desperately to find Safin’s forehand wing, going for the odd wrong-footing shot. The moment when Federer forces Safin to slice the ball is the moment Federer takes control, and finishes the short ball with a liberating forehand into the open court. Federer pumps himself up with a lionesque roar of approval.
Still it isn’t enough to extract a break as Safin’s serving moves up into the stratosphere. Time after time his clutch serving bails him early in this fifth set. It is instead Federer who relinquishes serve first in the sixth game due to an untimely and rare double fault. First blood to the Russian.
But Federer’s exalted play would not dry up just yet. Staring down 15-30 on his own serve he gives a low volley from Safin the running backhand topspin lob treatment to avoid facing two match points. Arguably Federer’s finest shot of the encounter. This time it’s Marat who applauds his adversary. Federer avoids the deuce score line and holds due to a gutsy backhand drop shot at the net, still exuding an unwavering abundance of collected calm accumulated over years of experience.
Safin is now serving for the match and, although Federer muscles the ball for a couple of winners, he gets to his first match point at 40-30 but sends a wayward backhand wide. Safin gets another chance but this time he goes up the line…and misses! Being the predator he is, Federer starts to smell the tension seeping off of Marat’s game. A wonderful low dipping backhand pass sets up the forehand bread and butter shot. The chapion now has an opportunity to break back and send this extravaganza into overtime.
But, yet again, Safin saves his hide with what surely must be one of the fastest 5-shot points in tennis’ history; blasting the serve out wide, Federer dives to retrieve it. Safin then fires it into the open court before absolutely hammering it on the sideline for a clean winner. Federer’s whole body shrugs out of sheer desperation. Damn! What a play. In the next point we see Federer prowling the net again like a cat. He gets to another break chance and this time Safin slices the ball out: 5-4. Back on serve we go.
At this point the level of tennis gets even better. Both players hit the overdrive button and winners flow like fine wine. Safin in fact manages to hit three in a row on Federer’s serve to give himself another look of ending the match at 30-40. A famous rally then ensues where the most tentative approach shot you’ll ever see Federer hit inexplicably doesn’t get punished by Safin. Two points later Federer draws level at 5-5, somehow.
As you might expect Safin has to work for his hold in the next game. At 15-30 down he unleashes his fastest backhand of the night, going for it full-blooded down the line, on the line. He goes on to hold but on his next service game at 6-6 Federer pulls out his Ken Rosewall impression by invoking the slice pass up the line to earn himself break point. He too squanders it and Safin pummels a few serves to eventually hold.
At 6-7 15-40 down, yet again Federer faces match points on his own serve. Safin would blow his fourth opportunity to close out the match due to what looks like an unhealthy overdose of adrenaline in his right arm. On his fifth try Federer takes the racket out of his hand with an immaculate first serve out wide. A couple of points later Federer grunts his kick serve in the service box and wins the point to level at 7-7. Safin would then enjoy an easy hold, clinching the game with a sharp angled forehand cross court winner.
In the last game of the match Safin’s returns are too hot to handle for the Swiss champion. Federer saves match point yet again at 15-40 with an ace out wide but falters at the Russian’s seventh match point as the trademark shot of the just turned 25-year old Russian, his backhand down the line, was one too many. Federer trips and falls on the penultimate shot. He tries to get back up but realizes it is over. Safin can barely get his hands up to celebrate and Federer, being the magnanimous champion he is, embraces Safin at the net to congratulate him. His 26-match win streak has come to an end. They both have produced a classic that will pass the test of time, and they both know it.
Final score: 5-7, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6, 9-7
You can find a detailed stats sheet right here.
People talk about Federer’s fall from grace worthy of Greek symbolic tragedy theatre, as he so fittingly stumbled to his knees on his last desperate attempt to stop the overwhelming force Safin had become. For me, it had already happened before that unforgetful moment. Because on the last change of ends Federer traded his iconic blue shirt for a white one. Federer didn’t need to wear that white shirt in the last game. He could have put it on a stick and start waving it around. Safin only needed to interpretate that change of clothing into a sign of capitulation to finally get over the finish line.
On another note: Federer was as vigorously animated as we’ve ever seen him and Marat Safin would never reach the pinnacle of his powers ever again. He did however extend this freightening form into the final where he beat native hero Lleyton Hewitt for his second grand slam title. Amazingly, Safin would only reach one more slam semifinal in his career after this showdown, namely at Wimbledon in 2008 (where he would lose to Federer in straights) whereas Federer would go on and appear in an astounding 37 more Grand Slam semifinals. Safin’s abilities were waning after this encounter. We were just lucky enough that these two met at this juncture in time on this big a stage.
So how did Safin beat Federer? Well, Safin had, maybe unknowingly, placed all the puzzle pieces he required to overthrow the defending champion that day. Not only did he pull off the upset on his birthday, which one would say helps your mood on the court. Most importantly though, in his box sat Peter Lundgren, the very man who took Federer to the echelon of this beautiful game. The former mentor of Roger had all the insights to Federer’s top secret weaknesses the rest of the world had been kept from. Before facing Federer he must have whispered in Marat’s ear to use the body serve, to impose himself with his backhand down the line, to aim his booming serve at Federer’s lunging backhand. He was the one who convinced Safin that, whenever the rare opportunity arose to frustrate Federer, he should grasp it with both of his hands and never ever let go!
The result? A blockbuster hall of fame tennis classic and the #1 on our list of greatest matches in Australian Open history.
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