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Wednesday, June 22, 2005
Updated: June 23, 4:56 PM ET
Safin is crazy about grass

By Wayne Drehs
ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England – Nobody ever accused Marat Safin of being sane. Throughout his up-and-down nine-year pro career, the former No. 1 has dropped his pants midmatch, been fined for not trying and destroyed an estimated 300 rackets in on-court displays of disgust.

But perhaps the biggest surprise of all came Wednesday, when the 6-foot-4 Russian, fresh off his 7-6 (4), 7-6 (4), 6-4 second-round victory against Mark Philippoussis, confessed in his post-match news conference that he's actually enjoying this grass thing.

You know, the ferocious narrow-leaved plant that most of the world uses as front-yard ornamentation? Safin swore off the stuff a year ago. Sat at the same podium, after a first-round Wimbledon loss to Dmitry Tursunov and confessed that he was "giving up on Wimbledon" and that he "hated this."

Exactly 365 days later, Safin disposed of Philippoussis, reached Wimbledon's third round for just the second time in his career and openly confessed that he and the soft, spongy chlorophyll-filled surface are now buddies for the first time.

He even used the word "fun."

"Because if you're not having fun, it's impossible to do anything good here," he said. "You can't have any expectations if you are suffering and struggling. That's what happened to me in the past, during all my career."

This is bad news for the rest of the Wimbledon field. Safin has long been considered one of the game's most complete players, with the ability to beat anyone on any given day. He defeated Roger Federer at the Australian Open in February, ending Federer's 26-match winning streak.

Now he appears to be figuring out the game on its most challenging surface.

"When he plays right and feels right, he can be awesome no matter what the surface," former Wimbledon champion John McEnroe said. "If he continues to play at this level, he's going to be tough to beat."

What a story that would make, to find Safin standing at Centre Court, hoisting the Wimbledon cup high above his head. Not only has he struggled to figure out grass, but he's also battling a ruptured ligament in his left knee that will require surgery as soon as Wimbledon ends. Doctors urged him not to play in the tournament, but Safin went against their wishes.

"Some movements, it's really painful," Safin said. "But I have to deal with that because then the pain goes away and then comes back. It's not a continuous pain, like I'm struggling all the time. It goes away and then it comes back. I get used to it."

Just like he's finally getting used to grass. The first time Safin stepped on a grass court here in 1997, he said he felt uncomfortable. Too many erratic bounces. Too difficult to move. In five of his previous seven championships, he headed home after a first- or second-round loss.

But then, two weeks ago in Halle, Germany, Safin won four matches before losing a three-set final to Federer. It was at that point, Safin said, that he realized he has put the fear of the green blades behind him.

"I beat some tough players there," Safin said. "All of the sudden, I felt comfortable. I felt comfortable moving on it. And that's one of the most important things, when you're playing on grass, is to move. All of the sudden, this came to me and I felt pretty good."

Safin can't explain why he feels more comfortable, but in May 2004, he signed on with Federer's former coach, Peter Lundgren, who pushed Safin toward fully committing himself to the sport, be it in the weight room, dining room or even a bar. He also encouraged Safin to keep his emotions in check and, when it came to grass, to play more aggressively.

Federer hinted Wednesday that he thinks Safin's knee injury has become a mental crutch the Russian is using to take pressure off himself. Win, and Safin gets credit for overcoming the injury. Lose, and it's the knees fault.

"I had the feeling he was very relaxed in Halle," Federer said. "He still gets irritated and throws his racquet. But still I feel like he was more relaxed overall than maybe I've seen him. Maybe I'm mistaken."

Safin insisted that Federer was wrong.

"I don't need to find a reason for myself so I don't have to feel really depressed after the match and lie to myself that it's because of the knee," Safin said. "It's because of nothing.

"I don't have to find a reason to take off the pressure."

Whatever the reason, it worked Wednesday, with Safin overcoming a 5-4, love-40 deficit in the opening set to win and set the tone for the match. Now comes the challenge of overcoming his draw, which includes both Lleyton Hewitt and Federer on Safin's side of the bracket. Safin will face crafty left-hander Feliciano Lopez next, on Friday.

The Spaniard cruised to a 6-2, 6-4, 6-2 victory over Great Britain's David Sherwood on Wednesday and hasn't lost before the third round in four Wimbledon appearances.

"I probably deserve it because the years before I had the easy ones and I couldn't make even past the first round," Safin said. "I have to pay the price, I guess. But I think the way I'm playing, it's OK."

He must be insane.

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Wayne.Drehs@espn3.com.