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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Safin hopes stunning upset is sign of good things to come

WIMBLEDON, England — If it seems like Marat Safin has spent more time playing tortured artist than big matches of late, it's no illusion.

On Wednesday, the Russian turned back his recent run of bad fortune to score his biggest win in nearly two years, upending No. 3 Novak Djokovic 6-4, 7-6 (7-3), 6-2 on Centre Court in the second round at Wimbledon.

"I didn't play great for a long time," Safin said. "I don't remember how does it feel."

Slowed by injuries, particularly a surgically repaired left knee, Safin hasn't been more than a dangerous floater the last two seasons. Still, he has remained a fan favorite not only because of his athletic style and devastating backhand but also for his unpredictability.

He has often used his perch at the podium in news conferences as his personal psychiatrist's couch, and he famously dropped his shorts after hitting a flashy drop-shot winner at the French Open.

If temperamental, no one doubts Safin's considerable skills.

"He's known for his, you know, mental instability in some ways," said 21-year-old Djokovic, who had reached at least the semifinals in the last five Grand Slam events but looked mentally weary in defeat. "But he's still a great player. I mean, he's still not too old. He's playing well. He's moving well. He wants to go back. You know, he wants to step it up again and try to get far in a major. This is a good way to start."

Lean times have been the rule and not the exception for the former No. 1 from Moscow, who honed his skills as a teenager in Spain.

Safin, 28, has not won a title since the 2005 Australian Open, his second major. He arrived at Wimbledon with a 10-13 record and a ranking of No. 75.

He has won two consecutive matches twice all season, and last beat a top-five player at the 2006 U.S. Open, when he upset then-No. 4 David Nalbandian of Argentina in the second round.

Grass has been a particular nemesis for the 6-4 Safin, who, despite his size, power and superior movement, has never shied away from expressing his disdain for the slick, irregular surface. After a first-round loss here in 2004, he famously declared that had hated grass and had given up practicing on it. Wimbledon remains the only major where he has failed to go beyond the quarterfinals.

"Thanks for the people to make the courts slower," Safin said when explaining how he suddenly found his groove on the lawns.

His coach, former pro Hernan Gumy of Argentina, has another explanation: All the hard work Safin has put in this season that is finally starting to pay off.

Gumy said Safin put in the hours in the gym and on the court at their training base in Valencia, Spain, in the offseason and has stayed focused all year.

They came to England four days after his second-round exit at the French Open to begin practicing on grass and didn't consider leaving even when Safin's sister, Dinara, made her first appearance in a Grand Slam final in Paris.

"He's fit, and he's worked really hard," said Gumy, who began coaching Safin about a year ago. "He is a guy who everybody knows on any given day can hit these kinds of shots."

Safin said he felt "desperate" at times this year as the losses piled up.

"You need to be really strong mentally to continue to play this game," he said.

Against Djokovic, who Safin also beat in straight sets in the opening round of the 2005 Australian Open, Gumy said his quick start was the key.

"I think Djokovic maybe was surprised and got tight," he said, adding that after all Safin has achieved, "it's even a double prize for him to win this match and feel that by working hard he can do these things."

Whether Safin has really discovered his comfort zone or merely revisited some of his brilliance from bygone days will become clearer in the rounds ahead.

His next opponent is No. 29 seed Andreas Seppi of Italy. They have never met. Although Seppi is seeded and Safin is not, Safin will be a strong favorite to move forward into the final 16, where he has not been since 2001.

Lleyton Hewitt, another two-time Grand Slam champ and former No. 1 who has suffered injuries and seen others pass him in the rankings, could empathize with how good it must feel for Safin, especially after dumping him 6-2, 6-1 in the first round of a tournament in Las Vegas this year.

"I kind of felt sorry for him on the court," recalled Hewitt, who also advanced to the third round Wednesday. "He was terrible. So for him to come out and be able to turn it around and play like this in a big tournament, yeah, it's fantastic for him, really is."

The best of Shaq vs. Kobe

Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant have maintained one of the most childish personal rivalries in all of sports, going back and forth like teenage girls for most of this decade.
Their relationship started out well enough, with Shaq playing the big-brother role when Bryant arrived straight from high school in 1996. But as Kobe blossomed into a superstar, a massive rift formed.

The flare-ups have been memorable — and occasional lyrical, as we saw with Shaq's rap performance Sunday, courtesy of the ever-vigilant TMZ. (Watch video here.)

Here are the top 10 highlights of this fabulous feud.

1. Two wills, one basketball

While winning three consecutive NBA titles in Los Angeles, O'Neal and Bryant kept their differences largely under control. But when the Lakers opened the 2002-03 season in a serious funk, the tension became palpable.

Bryant questioned Shaq's commitment to conditioning given the big fella's excessive weight and chronic foot injuries. In turn, O'Neal regarded Kobe as a shot hog.

"I'm just going to play within the flow of the game," Bryant said at the time. "If people want to criticize that, they're going to criticize that."

(At least these two agreed on one thing that year: They weren't to blame for the team's demise. That fell on the team's ineffective role players. Looking at you, Samaki Walker.)

2. Thrown under the bus

Kobe delivered the most personal salvo in 2003 while being questioned about rape allegations against him in Eagle, Colo., after a local resort employee accused him of sexual assault.

Perhaps looking to put his actions into context, Kobe noted how the Big Diesel handled his own problems away from the court. Bryant suggested O'Neal paid up to $1 million to make such matters go away.

According to police in Eagle, Kobe said, "He should have done what Shaq does ... that Shaq would pay his women not to say anything."

Perhaps Shaq got wind of that assertion, since he didn't contact Bryant that summer to offer support. Bryant felt that snub and complained bitterly to team management.

3. Shaq takes attendance

While off tending to his legal issues, Kobe missed the start of the 2003 training camp. A reporter asked O'Neal about not having the entire team present.

"I can't answer that," Shaq sniffed, "because the full team is here."

Ah, the needle and the damage done. This was just a little jab, but it stung Kobe and sent the feud swirling out of control. After a couple exhibition games, Shaq reminded reporters that the Lakers were "my team" and suggested that Kobe must become more of a team player.

4. The Jim Gray interview

In October 2003, Kobe took his sniping with Shaq to the next level during a chit-chat with Pete Rose's buddy.

When Gray asked Kobe about Shaq's leadership, Bryant said, "Leaders don't beg for a contract extension and negotiate some $30 million-plus per-year deal in the media when we have two future Hall of Famers playing here pretty much for free. A leader would not demand the ball every time down the floor when you have the three of us (Karl Malone, Gary Payton, Bryant) playing beside you, not to mention the teammates you have gone to war with for years, and by the way, then threaten not to play defense and rebound if you don't get the ball every time down the floor."

Bryant also used the phrase "Shaq's childlike selfishness and jealousy" during the interview and cited the big man's "unprofessionalism," pointing out he was "fat and out of shape."

Lakers coach Phil Jackson fined Bryant for airing his grievances in public after agreeing not to do so. The incident also prompted the Zen Master to hold a 20-minute team meeting to control the verbal wildfire.

Things got so bad that even NBA commissioner David Stern weighed in on the rift.

"My thought is to say, 'Kids, cut it out.' It's a guy thing. You say this, I say that. You say that, I say this and here we go," Stern told reporters. "Someone has to stop it, because at bottom it distracts us from our league and the teams."

5. Kobe divorces Shaq

No, Bryant didn't engineer the 2004 trade that sent O'Neal to the Miami Heat and ended the Lakers' mini-dynasty. By threatening to bolt L.A. as a free agent, though, Kobe forced Lakers owner Jerry Buss to choose between his two superstars.

In his 2004 book "The Last Season," Jackson recalled addressing this issue with Kobe on his way out the door:

"Will Shaq's presence on this team color your decision to come back or not?" I asked him.

"Yes, it does," he said. "There's no doubt about that. ... I've done that for eight years with him, but I'm tired of being a sidekick."

His sentiment came as no surprise, obviously. In the past few years, the entire city of Los Angeles has heard many times from many "sources" that Kobe was no longer willing to play a subservient role to Shaquille. But to hear it in the words of the only source that matters, to hear Kobe say "sidekick," really struck me.

6. Firing back from South Florida

O'Neal didn't say much about the trade. But when Bryant's earlier comments to Colorado investigators came to light, Shaq did not hold back.

Shaq took shots from South Florida after Kobe forced Lakers management to pick one or the other. (Eliot J. Schechter / Getty Images)

"This whole situation is ridiculous," O'Neal said. "I never hang out with Kobe, I never hung around him. In the seven or eight years we were together, we were never together. So how this guy can think he knows anything about me or my business is funny. And one last thing — I'm not the one buying love. He's the one buying love."

And ...

"The guy's a joke. I'm just trying to tell the world that the whole time, but just because he hits a couple of shots, everybody thinks he's a great person."

And ...

"He's a clown. Kobe, he gets caught by the police after doing what he did, and my name comes out."

7. Recorded rap attack

O'Neal's has used the microphone to insult Bryant before. In 2004, he collaborated with DJ Vlad on the CD "Hot in Here Part 5." On the track, "You Not the Fightin Type," he took a swipe at Kobe while giving a shout out to Cincinnati radio personality DJ Skillz:

"Even with wings you never as fly as me ... you remind me of Kobe Bryant trying to be as high as me ... but you can't ... even if you get me traded ... wherever I'm at, I'm Puffy; you Mase and you're still hated."

8. Pettiness explored

After Jackson "retired" as coach of the Lakers, he aired out his dirty laundry in "The Last Season," covering the Shaq-Kobe divorce in great details and offering vivid looks at their daily bickering.

Here was one snapshot: "At times, the pettiness between the two of them can be unbelievably juvenile. Shaquille won't allow himself to be taped before a game by Gary Vitti because he's too aligned with Kobe. Kobe won't let Chip Schaefer, Shaq's guy, tape him. Reporters aren't immune from these territorial disputes. If a writer lingers too often around one superstar's locker, he is likely to be shut out by the other."

9. The Christmas showdown

Naturally, media types hyped the first Heat-Lakers game to the hilt. Shaq and Kobe cheerfully played along.

"If you've got a Corvette that runs into a brick wall, you know what's going to happen," O'Neal told ABC.

"I'm so far from a Corvette, it's not even funny," Bryant told LA reporters, suggesting he was really a Lamborghini.

"No, he's not," O'Neal told Miami reporters. "He's a Corvette."

Then there was this: A member of Shaq's entourage came to the game in L.A. with a T-shirt picturing O'Neal and Bryant's body with a rat's head. Nice.

10. Free-style rap attack

Thanks to the power of the Internet — and the resourcefulness of TMZ — thousands of American web surfers can't get this refrain out of their heads: "Kobe, tell me how my a** tastes."

That was the line Shaq liked most during his impromptu rap performance at a New York club Sunday night. A video of that performance quickly hit the world-wide web.

Of course, there was some build-up to his finishing line. Shaq started with "You know how I be, last week, Kobe couldn't do it without me" and mixed in "I'm a horse, Kobe ratted me out, that's why I'm getting divorced. ... He said Shaq gave a [woman] a mil. I don't do that 'cause my name's Shaquille. I love 'em, I don't leave 'em."

Later, O'Neal reminded America that he was just playing around and has no issue with Kobe, none whatsoever.

Original here