From Russia with love

Ann Killion On tennis

Valentine's Day came a little early at HP Pavilion. In the first marquee match of the 2007 SAP Open, a woman held aloft a giant card bedecked with hearts and photos and the words "All Day I Dream About Safin."

That would be Marat Safin, Russian sex object, Monte Carlo bon vivant, 24th-ranked player in the world and apparent love object for both sexes.

"I love you," shouted a man, after Safin struggled to defeat wild-card entrant Scott Oudsema.

Safin raised his hand in acknowledgment. But he didn't respond to the giant Valentine with a wave or even one of his trademark drop-of-the-shorts.

"I was pretty focused," he said.

Tournament director Bill Rapp is happy about that. Safin didn't exactly walk over Oudsema, and the SAP would very much like one of its biggest draws to hang around into the weekend.

Safin had excuses for coming out sluggish; so do the other top seeds, because last weekend saw Davis Cup action around the globe. Andy Roddick and James Blake, who play their opening matches tonight, flew to San Jose from Czechoslovakia. Safin flew in from Chile, where Russia, the defending Davis Cup champion, defeated its host.

"This is my job," Safin said. "Sometimes you do things you don't want to do. Pack your bags, go to the airport, fly 15 hours and get back on the court. It's not really pleasant. You do your job."

It should be noted that Safin, 27, did his woe-is-me complaining with a smile and a wink. He knows he has a pretty good gig going. He jet-sets around the world, hob-nobs with the beautiful people, makes millions of dollars and hangs around the top 25 in the world rankings. He's also quite popular with fans and the media because of his gregarious personality, his rambling blog entries and his occasional oddball actions on the court. Like the time he dropped his shorts to celebrate a great shot during the 2004 French Open.

Though Safin was No.1 once, back in 2000, he doesn't worry too much about getting there again.

You see, there's a little hurdle named Roger Federer.

"Roger is far, far away from all of us," Safin said. "We'll never catch him unless he breaks his knee."

Federer, who is dominating his sport in a way we've never seen, is playing on a different level.

This is the second big sporting event in Northern California this month that is a cool event but lacking its sport's biggest star. Tiger Woods didn't make it to Pebble Beach; Federer kept alive his streak of never finding his way to San Jose. Phil Mickelson won the AT&T, but people will say, Sure, but he didn't beat Tiger. Whoever wins this week's SAP will hear, That's nice, but can anybody beat Roger?

This is a golden age of men's tennis, thanks to Federer and an international explosion that has lifted players such as Rafael Nadal and Safin to prominence. We don't notice it much here in the States because Federer is Swiss, quiet and owns a cow, and because we tend to ignore sports that aren't dominated by Americans. But there's a lot to like about what's happening in tennis -- and much of it will be on display this week.

We saw some of it Tuesday night. Safin and Oudsema, a 20-year-old from Kalamazoo, Mich., ranked 261st in the world, fired rockets back and forth at each other. Oudsema would rear back and launch a 135mph ace to keep himself in the match. But he finally succumbed to Safin's skill, 6-4, 7-6 (7-3).

This is Safin's first visit to San Jose. He said the only time he has been nearby was a trip to Yosemite Park, which is -- he believes -- "just around the corner." Safin usually plays well at the Australian Open -- he won it in 2005, beating Federer in the semifinals -- but then customarily goes home to Europe and does not play well.

"I thought maybe I'd change things," he said. "Plus I was playing in Chile, so to fly back to Europe is pretty far."

So instead he took a short, 15-hour hop to the Bay Area, where his fans were waiting, complete with Valentines.

Ann Killion is a San Jose Mercury News columnist.
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