By Jason Brown, USTA.comMOSCOW --
Taking a gamble on the mercurial but extraordinarily gifted Marat Safin, Russia reaped the rewards and may have found its leading man.
A resounding triumph, Safin gave the host nation an early 1-0 advantage in the best-of-five, Davis Cup by BNP Paribas semifinal series, defeating Andy Roddick of the United States in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6.
“I don’t know if I had my best stuff today and to his credit, he served well and played better than I did,” said Roddick, whose singles record over his six-year Davis Cup career dropped to 20-8 and three-match winning streak for the U.S. was snapped.
Playing against the hard-serving 2006 US Open finalist on the opening day of world group play at the Olympic Stadium in Moscow, Safin thrilled his many hometown supporters by hitting winners from all angles, while showing flair at the net and silky navigation around the soft clay surface.
After dropping the first and second sets, Roddick charged back in the third. Down 5-3, with a shot at closing out the match in tidy fashion, Safin faltered, and Roddick took full advantage with his first service break of the Russian.
Forcing his way into a deciding tie-break, Roddick harnessed his powerful serve and took a 5-4 lead. But Safin would regroup, winning two of the next three points to close out the match, 7-5.
“I didn’t make any first serves and that never helps the situation,” said Roddick, who won just 48% of his second serves. “I missed a couple of balls, and didn’t give myself a chance after fighting back in the third set.”
Safin, ranked No. 74, leveled his career head-to-head record against Roddick to 3-3, and improved his Davis Cup ledger to an impressive 25-14.
For the match, Safin was an impressive 4 for 8 on break point conversions, including a key exchange at 4-3 in the first set and a second important break to go up 4-2 in the second.
As Roddick charged in on first and second serves, employing a heavy dose of serve-and-volley, Safin made him pay, dipping pretty topspin backhands and slice lobs past the hustling American.
Losing his footing on the patchy clay surface frequently during the match, Roddick was out of his comfort zone.
"It’s not the greatest, but as far I know, he was playing on the same court that I was,” said Roddick, choosing not to blame the clay for his shortcomings.
With the pressure on teammate James Blake to level the series, the Fairfield, Connectucut native lost to top-nominated Russian Mikhail Youzhny in Friday’s second match in four sets, 7-5, 1-6, 6-1, 7-5.
It is now up to top-ranked doubles tandem Bob and Mike Bryan to stem the tide as they prepare to take on Russians Youzhny and Dmitry Tursunov in the Saturday doubles rubber. If the Bryans can bolster their side with a victory, anything can happen on Sunday.
Russia’s lineup for double could still be revised by Captain Shamil Tarpischev up until an hour before Saturday's start, depending his tactics. And to hear Roddick tell it, Youzhny will almost certainly be substituted out of Sunday’s reverse singles.
“I’m not going to be playing Youzhny. I think they’ll play Davydenko,” said Roddick, clued into the Russian strategy and changing tactics.
“I saw him out practicing yesterday and today, and if he felt good, I’m not sure why he wouldn’t be out there in the lineup. So unless there’s something that they’re not sharing with us, I would expect to see him out there on Sunday.”
One thing's for sure, after Friday's results, Roddick will not get the chance to resume his role of team closer. What he can do is defeat Youzhny, Davydenko or even perhaps Dmitry Tursunov, and give Blake a chance to complete an 0-2 comeback.
The last time the United States came back from an 0-2 deficit was in 1934 and they are an overall, 1-30 in their attempts from this deficit.
“The third set was my best set, so hopefully I can feel more comfortable on Sunday,” said Roddick. “That’s one of the good things about Davis Cup. Most times in life you don’t get a second chance, but here you do. So I hope to capitalize on my next opportunity.”