On this day 15 years ago, the entire tennis world enjoyed the semi-final encounter at Rod Laver Arena between the last year's Australian Open champion Roger Federer and Marat Safin whom he beat in the title match. The Swiss claimed the first Australian Open crown over Marat in 2004 and this time it was the Russian's turn to serve the revenge, ousting world no.
1 5-7, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6, 9-7 in four hours and 28 minutes of thrilling tennis that kept the crowd on the edge of their seats from start to finish. Federer had won the last 26 matches and also 19 at Grand Slams dating back from Wimbledon 2004, playing on a very high level throughout 2005 and suffering one of only four defeats in the entire season!
The encounter took place on Marat's 25th birthday and he made sure to give himself the most desired gift, especially after winning the title three days later. Roger had to deal not only with an inspired Safin but also with the elbow and back pain (blisters as well), coming back from 5-2 deficit in the fifth set before finishing on the wrong side of the scoreboard when Marat broke him in the 16th game, converting the seventh match point!
It was the shotmaking of the highest order on both sides, forging one of the most memorable clashes of the 21st century. Two of the most naturally gifted players of their generation pushed each other to the limits with some accurate and authoritative serving, court covering and attacking tennis from every inch of the field, giving the crowd at Rod Laver Arena something to remember for a long time.
As we all know, Safin's mental aspect of the game was not always in relationship with his physical preferences and talent, although he pulled everything right in Melbourne during the fortnight, under the guidance of Roger's former coach Peter Lundgren.
In the end, Federer won seven points more than Safin (four breaks of serve on each side) but it wasn't enough to carry him over the finish line despite the fact he had the advantage in the shortest points up to four strokes, the dominant kind of rallies in this fast and floating match.
Nothing could separate them in the mid-range exchanges and Marat prevailed in the more extended rallies with ten or more shots to stay in contention. Both players found the range on serve right from the start and the first break chance came only in game eight when Marat fired a big serve to get out of jail.
Roger held after two deuces at 5-5 and clinched the opener with a break in the next game when Safin sent a backhand long. The Russian went in front after a break in the third game of set number two, keeping the advantage until 5-4 when he wrapped up the set with an excellent half volley to level the overall score and get back into contention ahead of the remaining sets, ready to fight until the very last point.
Federer moved in front with a break in the second game of the third set but Safin pulled it back with a cracking backhand down the line in game five, returning to the positive side of the scoreboard and setting thrilling closure of the set.
Returners had their chances in the finishing games and it was Roger who took charge this time around, delivering a break in game 12 after a colossal forehand error from Marat to grab the set 7-5 and take another big step towards the final.
The fourth set produced some tremendous hitting and no break opportunities, heading towards the tie break that was a must-win one for Marat. The pressure was on the Russian and Roger took full advantage of that, blasting a return winner to gain a 5-2 lead, moving two points away from the finish line.
With no room for errors, Safin won the next two points on the return before Federer earned a match point at 6-5 for his second straight Australian Open final. Marat saved it with a beautiful lob to stay alive, closing the breaker in the 14th point to send the match into a decider after three hours and eight minutes.
There, Safin repelled two break chances in game three and jumped into a 4-2 advantage after a costly double fault from Roger, extending the lead with a hold in the next game. Serving for the triumph at 5-3, Marat squandered two match points and Roger broke back to prolong this marvelous match and give the crowd more memorable moments.
The Swiss had to save another match point on his own serve in game ten and an additional two at 6-7, refusing to surrender until the very end and giving his everything to emerge at the top. Safin held with ease to gain an 8-7 advantage, forcing Roger to serve to stay in the match once again and finding a way to break the Swiss and seal the deal.
Federer repelled the sixth match point with an ace but the seventh proved to be lethal for him, stumbling while chasing the ball and allowing Marat to finish the job with a forehand winner that propelled him into the final.