Paris Flashback: Marat Safin beats Radek Stepanek to regain Paris crown



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Paris Flashback: Marat Safin beats Radek Stepanek to regain Paris crown

Recognized as one of the most promising players from a new generation born in the early 80s, Marat Safin had been the most prominent figure at the final Masters 1000 event of the season in Paris, winning three out of five titles between 2000-2004.

His fourth and last Masters 1000 title came in the French capital on November 7, 2004, toppling a qualifier Radek Stepanek 6-3, 7-6, 6-3 in two hours and 19 minutes for his 14th and a penultimate ATP title, winning the Australian Open next January to complete his tally after just turning 25!

Roger Federer decided to skip Paris, leaving the door open for Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick, Tim Henman and Marat Safin as the main favorites. Roddick and Henman bow out in the third round while Safin ousted Hewitt in the quarters, entering the last four with the third Paris title in sight.

In the qualifiers' battle, Stepanek dismissed Max Mirnyi for his best result in a career at this level, never playing in the quarter-final of the Masters 1000 events before and reaching his first ATP final. It was their second meeting of the season, both on indoor carpet, and Marat earned a victory with better performance on the second serve, fending off five out of six break points and scoring three breaks from seven chances to secure the win in straight sets.

The Russian tamed his shots more efficiently, staying away from unforced errors while hitting the same number of winners as the Czech, which made all the difference. As always on the fast indoor carpet surface, the winner was decided in the shortest rallies up to four strokes where Marat forged a considerable advantage that carried him over the finish line, doing more damage with his serve and the first groundstroke to leave Stepanek behind him.

Radek stayed in touch in the more extended rallies, but that wasn't enough for at least a set, leading 5-4 in the second set tie break before losing the next three points and hand the set to his rival, who would bring the encounter home in the next one.

In 2004, Marat Safin won the third Parisian title in the last five years.

Safin kicked off the action with a hold at love and broke Stepanek in game two with a behind-the-back volley for 2-0. The 6th seed extended the lead with an ace, creating two set points at 5-2 but wasting them, as Radek fired two winners to reduce the deficit to 5-3.

Marat sealed the opener with a backhand down the line winner in the ninth game, doing just about everything right so far and hoping for more of the same for the rest of the encounter. Radek fended off a break chance in the third game of the second set with a fantastic volley winner, but Safin found the way to break him after a lucky net cord that pushed him 2-1 up.

Out of sudden, he got broken a few minutes later after his first loose service game, losing ground a bit as Stepanek shifted into a higher gear. The Czech was the better player in the second set, finding the rhythm on his serve and placing volleys away from the Russian to settle into a nice rhythm after that break he suffered, hoping to win the tie break and level the overall score.

Stepanek opened a 4-2 gap after an error from Safin at the net, but an easy forehand mistake at 5-4 cost him dearly, allowing Marat to prolong the set and move 6-5 ahead. Radek was robbed in the next point as his first serve landed on the line only to be called long, sending a volley beyond the baseline to lose the breaker 7-5 and push Safin a set away from the title.

Stepanek was there to fight despite a considerable deficit. He hit another beautiful volley winner to create a break chance at the beginning of the third set, denied by Safin's volley winner that kept him on the scoreboard's positive side.

The second game proved to be challenging for Radek, but he got away with it to keep the pace, serving to level the score at 4-4 in the eighth game when he wasted a game point, with Marat spotting a space for a backhand crosscourt winner that sent him 5-3 up.

Serving for the title, Safin repelled a break point with an ace down the T line before missing a routine smash to offer a break chance to his rival. Another good serve got the Russian out of jail, sealing the deal with one more unreturned serve for the third Paris title in the last five years and the second in a row at Masters 1000 series after conquering Madrid two weeks earlier.