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Safin turns from villain to hero after Davis Cup win

Written by: Staff

MOSCOW, Dec 4 (Reuters) Marat Safin, heavily criticised by the media for his perceived arrogance and flamboyant lifestyle, has been hailed as Russia's saviour after he clinched the country's second Davis Cup title.

Safin beat Jose Acasuso 6-3 3-6 6-3 7-6 in a nerve-racking fifth and decisive rubber before a capacity 10,000-strong home crowd at Moscow's Olympic arena yesterday to seal Russia's 3-2 victory over Argentina in the three-day final.

''Marat saved Russia!'' trumpeted a headline in the popular tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda on Monday.

''Safin played a key role in Russia's victory,'' echoed the influential business daily Kommersant. ''First, he teamed up with Dmitry Tursunov to win the doubles on Saturday, then overpowered the dogged Acasuso to seal a great victory.'' Russia captain Shamil Tarpishchev, who yesterday became the first person to lead his country to two Davis and two Fed Cup titles, also praised Safin.

''We had two choices for the last rubber and I picked Safin over Tursunov mainly for his big-match experience,'' explained Tarpishchev, dubbed a ''tennis genius'' by fellow coaches and some of his players. ''It proved the right decision after all. Marat not only won the last point, he also saved my reputation.'' It was not all plain sailing for the temperamental Safin, however.

Just a day before, he was vilifed by local media after meekly surrendering to Argentina number one David Nalbandian in straight sets in Friday's singles.

LAVISH LIFESTYLE Press reports said the 26-year-old Muscovite, long known for his lavish lifestyle and night-time escapades, was seen partying in a posh nightclub on the eve of his match with Nalbandian.

Over the weekend, Safin bitterly complained about the court surface, was involved in a heated discussion with the team captain and had to overcome injury and fatigue to win the decider.

The former world number one was also accused of over-confidence after suggesting at Thursday's draw that Russia would clinch the tie in two days.

But it was all forgotten yesterday as Safin was thronged by jubilant team mates and embraced by former Russian President Boris Yeltsin after scoring the winning point.

Asked to compare his feelings to the 2002 victory over France in Paris, Safin told reporters: ''This one is probably a bit more special because it happened at home in front of all our fans.'' The former Australian and U.S. Open champion said the win was especially memorable for him following a difficult season, plagued by injuries and inconsistent form.

''This was really bad year for me, probably the worst in my whole career,'' said Safin, who earlier this year tumbled out of the top 100 in the ATP rankings for the first time since making his professional debut at a 17-year-old in 1997.

''So winning the Davis Cup should give me a much-needed confidence boost,'' he said. ''I really hope to do well next year, regain my rankings. I'm especially looking forward to playing in the Australian Open after missing it this year with a knee injury and not defending the title I won in 2005.'' Safin also thanked Argentina's soccer great Diego Maradona for being his lucky charm.

The Russian, a big Spartak Moscow fan, said it was his long-time dream to meet the former World Cup-winning captain.

''I shook hands with Maradona on Saturday and it brought me luck.

It was that magic left hand, the Hand of God,'' Safin said yesterday. ''I think his Midas touch just rubbed off me.'' Maradona scored the first of his two goals with his left hand in Argentina's 2-1 quarter-final win over England in the 1986 World Cup finals. He later called it the ''Hand of God''.

Reuters PDS DB1904

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