For a change, Wimbledon inspired Safin's best behavior and tennis Wednesday, much to the chagrin of Novak Djokovic. Finally comfortable on the grass he long has loathed, Safin pulled off the biggest upset of the tournament so far with a workmanlike performance to beat the third-ranked Djokovic 6-4, 7-6 (3), 6-2.
Safin has been battling a slump for months, or even years, and the big Russian expressed surprise to find himself in the third round.
"The last time I won two matches in a row was I don't remember when," he said.
Djokovic, this year's Australian Open champion, was dismayed to catch the erratic Safin at a peak.
"I didn't expect it, honestly saying," Djokovic said. "Playing him on Centre Court obviously motivates him more to do well."
Safin's stunner made a good day even better for No. 1-ranked Roger Federer, who beat Robin Soderling 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (3). Djokovic was in the same half of the draw and posed a potential impediment to Federer's bid for a sixth consecutive Wimbledon title.
While Djokovic made his earliest exit at a major event in 2 1/2 years, a lucky bounce for new No. 1 Ana Ivanovic prevented a double defeat for Serbia. Facing match point in the second set, Ivanovic hit a forehand that hopped over the net cord for a winner, and more than 90 minutes later she completed a victory over Nathalie Dechy, 6-7 (2), 7-6 (3), 10-8.
"Someone from upstairs made the ball roll over," Ivanovic said. "If it wasn't for that net ... I would be booking my flight back home."
Dechy said she cried for an hour after Ivanovic won.
"Maybe today she can go and play the Lotto," Dechy said. "It would be a good day for her."
Two-time champion Serena Williams said she was less than thrilled about playing on Court 2, known as the "Graveyard of Champions," but there were no ghost sightings as she beat 17-year-old Urszula Radwanska 6-4, 6-4.
Williams will next face 2006 champion Amelie Mauresmo, who rallied past Virginia Ruano Pascual 4-6, 6-1, 6-1.
The two other Americans on the schedule also won. Bethanie Mattek reached the third round at a major event for the first time by beating Vera Dushevina 7-6 (6), 6-4, and she next plays 2007 runner-up Marion Bartoli. Bobby Reynolds matched his best Grand Slam showing when he defeated Frank Dancevic 4-6, 7-6 (10), 6-4, 6-4.
As for Safin: The grass-hating, nightlife-loving, racket-throwing Russian with the roller-coaster resume took the court figuring he might soon be back in Moscow.
"There is a flight at 8:30 leaving every evening," he said with a smile, "so I was almost there."
Safin's ranking has been falling faster than the shorts he dropped in glee to celebrate a nifty shot at the French Open four years ago. He arrived in London at No. 75 with a record of 10-13 this year, and he hasn't won a tournament since 2006.
It has been a humbling, frustrating stretch for a two-time Grand Slam champion once ranked No. 1.
"I was losing left and right," said Safin, 28. "I started to get a little bit desperate because I've been working really hard week after week. The results are not coming, not coming. You need to be really strong mentally to continue."
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After the French Open, Safin was no longer even the most celebrated player in his family. Younger sister Dinara Safina reached a major final for the first time at Roland Garros before losing to Ivanovic.
The first-round schedule at Wimbledon showed how far Safin has slipped: He and Fabio Fognini found themselves playing at the south end of the All England Club, next to the hospitality tents.
"I played on Court 11, which is almost in another club," Safin said. "My ranking dropped, so where you expect me to play? Not many people care about the match."
That victory earned him a promotion to the most famous stage in tennis, where Safin has rarely enjoyed much success. He hasn't been beyond the third round at Wimbledon since 2002 and has often complained about the surface, the weather and even the food.
"What did I say? `The strawberries are too expensive.' It's true. `They don't have enough for dessert.' It's true. ... I was right I think in what I said. I didn't make any lies."
While Safin's criticism failed to bring down concession prices, the club has slowed down the courts, much to his delight. A higher bounce allows him to stay in the backcourt, where he can whack his muscular groundstrokes.
"The courts have been getting slower and slower throughout the years," Safin said. "It's not any more like they used to be like eight years ago. It was really fast, and now you can play from the baseline and nobody even getting close to the net."
With Safin in his comfort zone, Djokovic found himself in trouble from the start, falling behind love-40 on his serve in the first game. He rallied to hold but was broken twice in a row to fall behind 4-3.
Two games later, when Safin served for the first set, he shanked a serve that landed 10 feet beyond the baseline, then fell behind love-30. It was a pivotal moment: If Safin let the game slip away, he might well go into meltdown mode.
"He's known for his, you know, mental instability," Djokovic said.
Instead, Safin calmly closed out the game and the set, and it was Djokovic who unraveled. He double-faulted five times in the last set, including on the final two points, and his tournament ended not with a trophy but with a stinging critique from Safin.
"He didn't impress me with his game today," Safin said. "I could read his serve. I could return. I could stay with him from the baseline, and that's it."
Safin next faces No. 29-seeded Andreas Seppi, and it's a safe bet the match won't take place on Court 11.
[Associated Press; By STEVEN WINE]
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