Safin Last Man Standing in Epic 1st Round Clash

ReutersRussia's Marat Safin yelling during the fifth set of his match against Germany's Nicolas Keifer at the U.S. Open on Tuesday.
NEW YORK -- The wheelchairs were there, if needed, resting side by side in the corridor leading from the court to the locker room.

For 4 1/2 muggy hours Tuesday at this wearying U.S. Open, 2000 champion Marat Safin and Nicolas Kiefer traded big serves and crackling strokes to the point of exhaustion. By the end, both were cramping. Kiefer could barely walk, his body contorting in pain.

The second-seeded Safin, not known for his mental toughness on court, kept his head in the game when he really needed to and had just enough energy left to win the first-round thriller 6-3, 4-6, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7-4).

"How was I feeling? Dead. Completely dead," the Russian said. "I was choking so badly. I was embarrassed. I couldn't serve, I couldn't play, I couldn't move."

Among Tuesday's victims was 1998 finalist Mark Philippoussis, who wrenched his long-troubled left knee in the fourth set against No. 24 Sjeng Schalken and had to stop four games later. Philippoussis was leading 2-1 in sets.

Jan-Michael Gambill of the United States moved into the second round when his opponent, Julian Knowle, stopped because of lower back pain.

In other action, two-time defending champion Venus Williams and third-seeded Jennifer Capriati both opened with perfect victories: 6-0, 6-0. Williams overpowered Mirjana Lucic to win her 14th straight match, while Capriati beat Bethanie Mattek.

Monica Seles, who won the Open twice in the 1990s, eliminated Zsofia Gubacsi 6-3, 6-3; and 1997 winner Martina Hingis returned to Grand Slam play after ankle surgery and beat Marissa Irvin 6-3, 5-7, 6-4. Seeded winners also included No. 7 Kim Clijsters, who next faces wild-card entry Mashona Washington, the sister of 1996 Wimbledon finalist Malivai Washington, No. 10 Amelie Mauresmo, and No. 14 Chanda Rubin.

Defending men's champion Lleyton Hewitt had a very matter-of-fact debut, beating Nicolas Coutelot of France 6-2, 6-3, 6-3. Also advancing were the three-time French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten, No. 7 Juan Carlos Ferrero, No. 9 Carlos Moya, No. 18 Alex Corretja and No. 19 Xavier Malisse.

Capriati bristled at her postmatch news conference when told by a reporter that Williams' father, Richard, criticized her in a magazine interview.

"I have nothing to say about what he says. It's just a waste of time. You can see how ignorant that sounds and how disrespectful that sounds," Capriati said. "He should just concentrate on his daughters -- and he's doing a good job. I don't need his advice."

Her match was rather uneventful, and that was just fine with Capriati.

"It's got to be a lesson, too," she said, referring to the shutout. The 17-year-old Mattek's "got to learn. She's got to experience it out there. It will make her tougher."

The day's best theater on court came courtesy of Safin and Kiefer, who combined for 113 winners and 27 aces, not to mention countless arms-raised celebrations and guttural yells of frustration. Safin broke two rackets by throwing them to the ground.

He has an all-or-nothing history in Grand Slam tournaments, reaching the semifinals or better at three straight before bowing out in the second round at Wimbledon. He was fined $2,000 for lack of effort after losing to a qualifier in the first round of the 2000 Australian Open.

He nearly gave away Tuesday's match against Kiefer, a German once ranked in the top 10 and labeled the next Boris Becker. Now he's 64th after starting the year 4-16.

After match point, Safin walked off under his own power, even stopping to sign dozens of autographs. Kiefer left his rackets and bag behind and was helped off by a trainer.

Kiefer, who needed intravenous fluids, wasn't all that impressed by the entertainment he and his opponent provided. "I prefer to win," he said. "In three sets."