Tennis-Pulse’s look back at the greatest matches in Australian Open history rolls on. In case you missed them, read back on our previous matches:
At #9, we have a heavyweight clash between two of the most entertaining players in the game’s history.
The 2004 Australian Open was probably one of the most wide open majors in recent memory. Andre Agassi had reigned supreme Down Under, with victories in three of the past four editions of the tournament. However, the younger generation was hot on his tail and had even surpassed him, winning the last 3 majors of 2003 and the Tennis Masters Cup. Number 2 seed Roger Federer was seen as the player most likely to ascend to the top of the game, after dominating victories at Wimbledon and the Masters Cup, but in between he failed to win a tournament, reminding people that he was still a slave to his inconsistency. To make matters worse, Federer’s draw pitted him against his tormentors Hewitt and Nalbandian, the latter of which had dismissed him in both hard court slams of 2003, just to get to the semis, where #3 seed, French Open champion, and US Open finalist Juan Carlos Ferrero would potentially await. We know how this half of the draw unfolded as Federer finally channeled his volatile talent and emotion into one unstoppable force to beat Hewitt, Nalbandian, and Ferrero in succession to reach the final and begin the first of his 237 consecutive weeks at #1. However, the drama that would unfold in the top half would put the bottom half to shame.
In the top half, everything seemed to be building up to an epic tussle between Agassi and Roddick in the semis to see whether Roddick would finally seize the reigns of American tennis or if Agassi could keep the fire burning for just a little longer. There would indeed be an epic tussle, but it was not the one everyone expected. Instead, a wild card, quite literally, threw his hat into the fray. Enter Marat Safin. The enigmatic Russian was coming off a tough, injury filled year that saw him free fall to #86 in the world. Being a former finalist and crowd favorite, the Australian Open gave him a wild card, but no one expected him to do much, as Safin was a mystery at the best of times, much less when rusty and unprepared. However, Safin did the unexpected, surviving tough matches against Todd Martin and James Blake to somehow make the quarters, where he faced #1 seed Roddick. Roddick was the heavy favorite to fulfill his date with Agassi, who was through to the semis barely breaking a sweat over his first 5 rounds. However, a day before his 24th birthday, Safin sent Roddick packing after emerging victorious in an epic match, setting up a mouth watering clash with Agassi. Once again, Safin topped himself, ousting Agassi in a five set classic, when no one thought he had the energy left to do so. Let’s take a look back at how exactly he did it.
Marat Safin and Andre Agassi on their best days are possibly the two cleanest and most potent ballstrikers off both wings in tennis history. Those best days occurred far more frequently for Agassi, but fortunately today was one of those days for Safin as well which provided a spectacle of flat laser-like ball striking. The very first point of the match reaffirmed that as the two traded blows until Safin sent a forehand wide. As the men traded holds to start the match, their strategies began to crystallize. For Agassi, he knew his best bet was to jerk Safin around the court and try to wear down the Russian, who had already played an absurd amount of tennis in the fortnight. For Safin, his game plan was simply to impose himself, particularly with his serve and with his backhand. As good as Agassi’s backhand was, Safin’s BH was probably even better, and BH to BH rallies would favor the Russian more than FH to FH rallies would. Safin showed this in the fifth game, when he cold cocked a backhand right down the line right off the bounce after a long rally.
However, Agassi would respond with a first serve and a backhand down the line of his own to hold for 3-2. Safin replied in turn with another jaw dropping backhand down the line to level at 3-3. Holds were traded to 4-4, where Safin, with the help of some huge hitting and a lovely lob, generated two break points. However, Safin misfired on return and sent a backhand long to give Agassi a pivotal hold. This imbued Agassi, and he pressured the Safin serve, generating a set point. However, Safin’s backhand was once again the equalizer as he pulled the trigger on a backhand down the line.
Safin then responded with a first serve and a delicately angled forehand winner for 5 all. Agassi had a look, but Safin showed his full array of weapons to get out of trouble. Agassi, however, was unfazed and followed with a clinical hold of serve to put the pressure right back on Safin. Safin was up to the task as he rained down some more serves to send the first set into a tiebreak, surely the only fitting conclusion for a set of this quality. Agassi drew first blood, as he secured a mini-break by drawing Safin into the net and then rifling a backhand past him. However, Safin responded with a deep forehand return followed by a backhand right on the baseline to get the mini-break back. The next point featured Agassi’s game plan in full flight, as he yanked Safin around from side to side, however Safin simply moved far better than other men of his size and he chased down Agassi’s shots like a gazelle, before finally ripping a forehand cross court on the dead run to level the breaker at 3. The jaw dropping standard of hitting continued until 5-5, where Safin badly mistimed a forehand to give Agassi another set point. Safin kept his cool and sent a backhand return right at Agassi’s feet which he followed up with a blistering forehand down the line to bring up his own set point.
That would be all Safin needed, as he thundered down an ace to finish a set of stunning quality from both men. Simply put, that set was a masterclass on how to strike a tennis ball off both wings. Both men played clean tennis, while putting on a show off the ground, but in the end Safin’s power game and clutch shot making gave him the thinnest of edges, and one that he desperately needed since he had played so much tennis coming into this match.
After a set in which Safin dominated most of the highlight reel, Agassi quickly gave us a reminder of his own prowess at the start of the second with a huge forehand down the line, applauded by Safin.
Agassi would finally break through at 1-1 as two impeccably struck forehand returns finally broke through Safin’s defenses. Agassi continued to play his trademark style of baseline tennis, early hitting combined with pace and depth, and he pushed Safin farther and farther behind the baseline. Up 4-2, Agassi looked to make quick work of the set as he ran down a Safin dropper and replied with one of his own to go up 15-30 on the Safin serve. However, the Russian was not yet ready to cede the set, and he held with the help of a massive forehand, forehand volley winner, and an ace. Safin thundered two backhands down the line in the next game to put pressure on Agassi’s serve, but some strong serving from the American put him on the precipice of the set, at 5-3. Safin quickly held to 15, but Agassi jumped out to a 30-0 lead in the next game, and the set looked all but over. It was time now for Safin to spring into action. And he did so, suddenly flipped a switch. The switch that enables him to hit anyone off the court, and Agassi couldn’t quite keep up, mistiming two balls to let Safin back into the game for 30-30. Safin then proceeded to rip a first serve right back at Agassi’s feet before hitting a huge forehand winner to get a break point. Hitting a ball that well should not look that easy, but Safin routinely made it so.
Another strong return from Safin drew the error from Agassi, and the set was back on level terms. Safin had responded to Agassi’s tremendous hitting earlier in the set with a display of his own, and a lovely angled backhand gave him the hold for 6-5. Safin opened the next game by ripping another return, one which Agassi didn’t even bother moving for. Agassi then missed a few balls, and Agassi was down two set points despite being in complete control just five minutes ago. However, Agassi was a eight time grand slam champion for a reason, and he saved the first set point with a stupendous forehand winner, right off the bounce.
A strong first serve saved the second set point, and another one followed by a missed Safin backhand sent the second set into a tiebreak. Reminiscent of the first, Agassi secured the first mini-break after Safin missed a forehand. However, the American repaid the favor and Safin rained down two first serves faster than Agassi could blink to go ahead 3-2 in the tiebreaker. A backhand winner and a first serve swung the pendulum back in Agassi’s favor, but some huge hitting and an ace gave Safin the edge once more at 5-4. However, Safin blinked, as he netted an easy forehand volley and then missed a makeable return to give Agassi a set point. Safin, on the other hand, seemed to have a flair for theatrics as in the exact same situation as the first set, Safin once again saved the set point with a, you guessed it, backhand down the line.
A booming first serve gave Safin a set point, and he made good on it, hitting a deep return to force an error from Agassi. The second set was of a similarly splendid quality to the first, eye candy for those who like flat and early hitting, albeit with a few more loose errors, and the tiebreak was a spitting image of the first. The result was that Marat Safin was up two sets to love on the great Andre Agassi. However, Agassi was great for a reason, and everyone in the arena knew that Safin would have to earn his place in the final.
Safin started the third set by reaffirming his flair for theatrics, making the same forehand volley he had missed to give Agassi hope in that second set tiebreak. However, Agassi was unfazed and held in workmanlike fashion. Safin replied in turn and put serious pressure on Agassi’s serve at 1-1, as two forehand down the line winners thwarted Agassi game points. Agassi would net a forehand down the line of his own to give Safin a break point, a potentially costly mistake. However, Agassi righted the ship with a service winner, backhand pass, and an ace. Marvelous clutch play from the American, and it was clear that Safin would have to come up with something very special to get the job done. But Safin was more than capable of that kind of play, as evidenced by a ridiculous angled backhand drop shot in the next game.
Men of Safin’s size shouldn’t be able to move with that kind of fluidity, and most men don’t have the hands to hit a shot of that caliber either. Yet Safin, with all his power, was still capable of beating you from all areas of the court, which he immediately reinforced by hammering two aces to hold for 2-2 and then creating another ludicrous angle, this time off the return.
Another marvelous return, a backhand winner off a body serve, let Safin get to 40-30, and a forehand error brought him to deuce, but Agassi was not shaken by Safin’s brilliance, and a quality first serve followed by some deep hitting to draw an error gave Agassi another pivotal hold for 3-2. Safin followed with a routine hold, and Agassi returned the favor despite Safin absolutely vaporizing another return. The exact same sequence then repeated itself, with Safin holding routinely and Agassi doing so as well, despite Safin once again smacking a return winner. Agassi now led 5-4, and looked to put himself in position to gain a foothold in this match. Safin would not let him do so just yet, as aces number 25 and 26 fell from the sky to level the set at 5. At 5-5, another booming return and an Agassi error opened the door for Safin at 0-30, but the seasoned champion’s serve and backhand won him four straight points to go ahead 6-5. Agassi would finally get the break he so desperately needed, as some missed Safin backhands and a forehand return winner got Agassi to 15-40. Another deep return prompted a forehand error from Safin, and Agassi was on the board after a 7-5 capture of the third set. These three sets feature probably some of the cleanest, earliest, and hardest ball striking you will ever see, and while the latter two sets would not quite live up to that standard, there was still plenty more drama to come in Melbourne.
Before embarking on our examination of set number four, it is important to realize that including this match, Safin played more tennis over the first six rounds of a major than anyone ever has. Add to that a niggling groin injury that he suffered against Roddick, and Safin’s energy levels at this point were pretty close to zero. You wouldn’t know that, however, by the way he started the set. He was still running around like a gazelle and serving bombs the first three games of the set, but serving at 2-1, a combination of steady play from Agassi and a few errors from Safin saw the Russian get broken despite leading 30-0. Safin started the next game with gusto, hitting a backhand winner and a splendid forehand volley winner to go ahead 15-30. However, three missed returns allowed Agassi to consolidate the break and go up 4-1. A close line call on game point unleashed Safin’s mental demons, and he played an atrocious game to hand Agassi another break. Safin had, at this point, essentially conceded the set. He knew he would need his energy for a potential fifth, and Agassi’s level showed no signs of dropping. Safin thought that against a player on the caliber of Agassi, his minimal reserves would be better served attempting a fifth set blitz rather than struggling through a fourth set war. While one may also interpret this as Safin’s trademark laziness and lack of grit when things got tough, with the benefit of his play in the first three sets as well as the greatest arbiter of all, hindsight, we can give him the benefit of doubt. In either case, Agassi served out the fourth set with no hiccups, and we were headed to a fifth.
Agassi looked to carry over his momentum from the fourth, going up 15-30 on Safin’s serve in the very first game of the fifth. However, Safin’s trusty backhand down the line evened the game and a few Agassi misses gave Safin the game. After a routine hold by Agassi, he once again threatened the Safin serve, going up 0-15 on the back of some marvelous defense. Safin recovered with two aces, but then Agassi brought Safin to the net with a drop shot and passed him up the line. But Agassi missed a backhand and a return to let Safin off the hook. At 2-1, Agassi finally blinked. Safin played some great attacking tennis to get to 30-30, but Agassi then missed a backhand and a forehand to hand Safin the crucial break of serve. Safin knew he needed to end proceedings quickly to have enough gas in the tank for the final, so he opened the next game with a booming backhand winner and two aces. Some deftly placed Agassi backhands brought him back to 40-30, but Agassi then missed a forehand and Safin surged ahead, 4-1. Agassi navigated a tricky hold in the next game, and won the first point on Safin’s serve. However, Agassi forehand failed him once again, as he sent one just wide after a long rally. Safin’s serve did the rest, as he slammed down two unreturnables to hold for 5-2, and victory was just a game away. Agassi replied with a quick hold to put the pressure back on the Russian, but Safin was up to it. He opened the next game by ripping a forehand winner. Agassi then missed a backhand and a return, and Safin had match point. Safin only needed one, and he closed the match with a booming backhand winner, a fitting conclusion to one of the greatest performances from a two handed backhand we have ever seen.
After watching a match in which Marat Safin, rusty and coming off injury, basically beat Andre Agassi at his own game on his court, it would be fair to wonder why one of these men won only two majors while the other was one of the greatest hard court players ever, and it is a fair question. Safin pretty much had it all. He was an athletic specimen, a broad shouldered, yet light on his feet, 6’5” with a massive serve (thirty-three aces in this match), probably the most potent backhand in the game’s history, a great forehand, and great feel. However, what he lacked was focus and dedication. Agassi surely could relate, as he spent most of his early career wasting his natural gifts as well. However, the light came on for Agassi, and it never quite did for Safin as despite his exploits the following year at this tournament, a series of injuries curtailed his motivation and his days of being a top tennis player. It must be said though that Safin, when he played as he had that day, was one of tennis’ greatest treasures, as was Andre Agassi, and the two of them produced some of the highest quality hitting we have ever seen for three sets. While the quality tapered off in the final two sets as Safin physically did not really compete in the fourth while Agassi fought hard in the fifth but but was failed by his forehand, the sheer brilliance of the first three from two of tennis’ greatest talents means this match still warrants a place on this list.
Looking forward, Safin competed hard in the final; however, Federer was simply too good, and Safin did not have much energy left after the first set and a half. Agassi went on to have a solid year on hard courts, winning Cincinnati beating Roddick and Hewitt and losing by the skin of his teeth to Federer at Indian Wells and the US Open, but his age was slowly starting to show as he didn’t play in many tournaments. Agassi would have one last hurrah at the 2005 US Open, but steady back pain caught up to him, and he would retire one year later. Safin’s career, despite him being a decade younger, would follow a strangely similar parallel. While he would squander most of 2004, he finally got serious at the end of the year, hired the man who got Federer over the hump, Peter Lundgren, and reeled off the Madrid-Paris double, a tough loss to Federer in the Masters Cup semi, and began 2005 with a stunning win at the Australian Open, avenging his 04 loss by beating the virtually unbeatable Roger Federer and following it up with a similarly spectacular performance against Hewitt in the final. However, this would prove to be Safin’s last hurrah, as hip and knee injuries caught up to him, and he never regained the form he showed in this match as well as in his run a year after. Despite the fall of these two men from the top of the game, on this day they still produced an absolute classic. It was ball striking and baseline tennis of the highest standard, not in the trench warfare style we see today, but simply two guys standing on the baseline and ripping the ball, back and forth, side to side, and isn’t that what tennis is all about?