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Johansson over Safin for Australian title

MELBOURNE, Jan. 27 (UPI) -- Sixteenth-seeded Thomas Johansson overcame first-set nerves and ninth-seeded Marat Safin of Russia, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, 7-6 (7-4), in the final of the Australian Open on Sunday (Saturday night in the United States) for his first career major victory.

Johansson became the first Swede to win the Australian Open since 1988, when Mats Wilander -- a coach of Safin's -- earned his third trophy at Melbourne.

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Stefan Edberg was the last Swedish player to win a Grand Slam title, taking the 1992 U.S. Open.

"These two weeks have been the best two weeks of my life and today was just a dream come true," said Johansson, who earned $520,000 for his seventh career tournament win. "It was unbelievable and I don't have words to say just how happy I am."

Johansson became the second-lowest seeded player to win the Australian Open in the Open Era. Unseeded Mark Edmonson won the title unseeded in 1976. No 16th seed had ever won a Grand Slam crown in the professional era.

"I never thought I was going to be a Grand Slam winner, but the way I had been playing these two weeks has just been great," said Johansson, who said he will celebrate his triumph by going out to drink with his Swedish fans.

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This Australian Open had been marked a string of stunning upsets in the men's draw. By the second round, the first five seeds were out -- a first in a Grand Slam.

The 26-year-old Johansson never would have been considered a potential champion before the fortnight, having never gotten past the quarterfinal in 24 previous Grand Slams.

Playing on his 22nd birthday, Safin failed in a bid for his second career major. The Russian won the 2000 U.S. Open.

"I think I didn't play my best tennis, definitely," he said. "I didn't make anything special to win today and Johansson was too good. He played great. I just tried to find my game but I couldn't."

Backed by a bevy of buxom, blonde beauties in his box, Safin broke serve in the third and ninth game and saved all six break points he faced to take the first set in 33 minutes.

History appeared to be on the Russian's side as he was 39-0 in Grand Slams when winning the first set. But Johansson, playing in his first career major final but cheered on by vocal group of Swedes in blue and yellow face paint, settled down in the second.

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After making 12 unforced errors in the first set, he committed just nine in the second, hitting 14 winners.

The Swede capitalized on the first double-fault of the match to take a 2-1 lead in the second. After dropping his serve for the first time, Safin broke his racquet on the changeover. He had two break points in the next game, but Johansson hit an ace and Safin put a backhand into the net.

Johansson later served out the set in the 10th game, hitting a pair of aces and two service winners to level the match.

"In the second set when he made a break, it changed completely the game and I couldn't come back," Safin said. "He started to play well and was dominating all the time.

Using an effective drop shot, surprisingly dominant serve and a punishing backhand, Johansson started to frustrate his more powerful rival. Safin dropped his serve in the seventh game, hitting two unforced errors and a double-fault on break point.

Johansson had another break point in the ninth game, when Safin was jeered for appearing to tank. But the Swede showed the first signs of anxiety and failed to capitalize. However, he did not falter a game later, easily serving out the set in 43 minutes.

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Safin competed better in the fourth set but could not crack the Swede. He lost his serve to begin the tiebreaker and an unforced error put the former world No. 1 in an 0-3 hole.

Johansson fired a crosscourt backhand passing shot for a winner and put a return of a serve at 125 miles per hour serve at the feet of Safin, whose half-volley on the baseline went long.

The ninth-seeded Russian pulled within 1-5 when a backhand hit the net cord, went over his charging opponent and in. But Johansson hit a service winner to reach match point.

Safin saved three with a cross-court forehand drive, a service winner and Johansson's wide backhand. However, the match ended when Safin's lob attempt went long. Johansson, with a look of disbelief on his face, celebrated only with a few waves and a kiss to the crowd.

While the extreme heat that befell the women's final on Saturday was not present, Johansson still credited his improved fitness with helping him lift his game.

Johansson had never been ranked higher than No. 18 and missed a portion of the 1999 season with a broken left wrist and a virus in the muscle and lining of his heart.

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Safin was coming off a five-set victory over Tommy Haas and had one less off day between the semifinals and final.

Johansson finished with 16 aces, four double-faults and 53 winners. He won 86 percent of his first-serve points and cashed in on 3-of-14 break-point chances.

Safin had just three more winners than unforced errors (39-36) and 13 aces. He was successful on 55 percent of his forays to the net (29-of-53), while Johansson won 73 percent of his net points (36-of-49).

Despite failing to join Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Yevgeny Kafelnikov as the only active players to win a Grand Slam at two different venues, Safin showed this week the form that brought him seven titles and a stay at the top of the rankings in 2000.

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