Johansson wins Australian Open men's title

Sunday, January 27th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) _ After one of his earlier victories, Thomas Johansson described himself as uninteresting.

When he finally reached a Grand Slam final, on his 25th try, he was dazzling.

Johansson used heavy serves and combinations of top spins, slices, flat drives and lethal drop shots to break down Marat Safin's power game Sunday, winning the Australian Open 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, 7-6 (4).

The low point of Safin's bad day on his 22nd birthday came in the final tiebreaker, when Johansson slugged a backhand crosscourt passing shot that left him sprawling, and trailing 4-0.

Safin rallied from 1-6 to 4-6 and then drew Johansson in with a drop shot _ but then lobbed long, giving the 16th-seeded Swede the 1 million Australian dollars (U.S. dlrs 520,000) winner's check.

``I wished that it was going out. I felt that it could have hit the line,'' Johansson said.

``You cannot compare anything with this. You've dreamt about it. I've seen it on TV but I never thought I was going to be standing there on court.''

Johansson acknowledged one problem on his way to victory.

``I was close to missing the match because my coach forgot to call a car. We had to get a taxi,'' he told the crowd of about 15,000 at the end.

He thought the taxi driver recognized him.

``He said, 'Good luck,''' Johansson said later.

Publicly wishing Safin a happy birthday, he said: ``He's turning 22 and I'm 27. I'm almost over the hill. I feel old here.

``I was lucky to win today.''

Safin, who beat Pete Sampras to win the 2000 U.S. Open, told Johansson it was important to ``enjoy it as much as you can.''

The Russian said the second set changed the match completely.

``I didn't feel comfortable on the court today,'' Safin added. ``He was overpowering me from the baseline. It's very unusual for me, somebody playing the backhand better than me.

``He was on fire.''

Sagin suggested that the dozens of Swedish fans in the crowd also gave Johansson confidence.

He was the first Swede to win a Grand Slam title since Stefan Edberg at the 1992 U.S. Open. He also was the second lowest seeded player to win the Australian Open in the Open Era. Mark Edmondson was unseeded when he won in 1976.

Johansson made few mistakes after losing serve in the first game of the match to give the Russian the only service break he needed to take the set.

Double faults hurt the ninth-seeded Safin in the service breaks that cost him the second and third sets.

In the second, Johansson reached deuce on a drop and lob combination. Four points later, after a double fault, Safin hit a backhand into the net and the Swede had a break for 2-1.

In the third, Johansson started the seventh game with a drive and drop-shot combination, and gained a break for 4-3 when Safin double faulted on the last point.

In six other games in the match, Safin had to save break points to hold.

Johansson started the fourth set with a break on errors by Safin, and had a break point for 3-0. But Safin held and then broke for 2-2 with a backhand winner down the line.

At 6-1 in the final tiebreaker, Safin saved three match points with a forehand winner, an unreturnable serve and a miss by Johansson before his lob went slightly too long.

Unlike in the women's final Saturday, when defending champion Jennifer Capriati labored in 95-degree heat to overcome Martina Hingis, the men played under generally gray skies with temperatures no higher than 81.

Both served at up to 209 kilometers an hour (130 mph), with Johansson winning the battle of aces 16-13.

A lustily cheering band of blue-and-yellow-clad Swedes greeted most of Johansson's aces with a chant ending in ``We like it!''

Both players had to come back after trailing 2-1 in sets in their semifinal matches.

After needing only 28 minutes in his quarterfinal when Wayne Ferreira pulled out with an abdominal strain, Safin rebounded after a 50-minute rain delay for a 6-7 (5), 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-0, 6-2 over seventh-seeded Tommy Haas. He ousted Sampras in the fourth round.

Johansson beat No. 26 Jiri Novak 7-6 (5), 0-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. His best previous Grand Slam results were reaching the U.S. Open quarterfinals in 1998 and 2000.

In this tournament, he said, he played at his best in nearly every match.

``We've been working very hard during November and December. We were running a lot, lifting weights, playing a lot of squash. Today, I felt really good the whole time. It was the same against Novak in the semis, I was feeling great,'' he added.

``That's the big difference from the other years. My physical strength has been my weakness. Not anymore.''

In remarks here about why tennis was fading in popularity in Sweden, he said earlier, ``Look at me. I'm not interesting.''

Now that he is a champion, he said, ``Maybe it's going to change. I hope so.''

Safin had back problems in early 2001 but reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and the semifinals at the U.S. Open, where he lost to Sampras. At Wimbledon, he lost to eventual champion Goran Ivanisevic.