Whatever else Marat Safin goes on to achieve in his career, he will remain one of Moscow's favourite sons, and he has just enhanced his reputation still further. For the second time in four months, Safin won a live fifth rubber in his home city, to see Russia through to the semifinals and another home tie against Germany.
It is a mark of the strength of the Russian team that Shamil Tarpischev could afford to hold back his twice-Grand Slam champion, twice-Davis Cup winner and former world No 1 and throw him in for a final rubber. Part of that decision was dictated by blisters on Safin's feet that prevented him from practising much this past week, but blisters or not, nothing stopped him playing another superb Davis Cup match, sending down 15 aces in a 76(3) 63 62 victory over the luckless Paul-Henri Mathieu.
A third fifth rubber loss for Mathieu
You have to feel sorry for Mathieu. He has now played three live Davis Cup fifth rubbers, all against Russia, and lost them all. But while he failed to handle the pressure in his defeats to Mikhail Youzhny in the 2002 final and to Igor Andreev in the 2005 quarterfinals, there can be no blame this time. He played a very solid match, fighting off four break points at 5-5 in the first set. On another day he might well have beaten the erratic Safin, but this was a day when Safin was on form and on song, and there was nothing Mathieu could do once he had lost the first set tiebreak.
"I think it was surprising for me that I could play such good tennis," said Safin. "I was injured for a couple of days, I couldn't practise because of the blisters, so it was pretty amazing. I was so confident, for some reason. I felt I was going to win, and with such confidence I felt there was no chance it would go five sets."
Safin's win ended a day - indeed a tie - full of drama. It was the only straight sets score of the weekend, which saw three successive five-setters.
Grosjean used guile and cunning to beat the bigger player
In the third of them, Sebastien Grosjean came back from being overpowered for two and a half sets by Andreev to win 75 46 26 63 64 in four minutes short of four hours. It was a wonderful match, and those tennis purists who delight in the ability of the little guy to use guile and cunning to beat bigger and more powerful players would have loved it.
But ultimately it wasn't enough for the visitors. Four times since December 2002 the French have played Russia, and four times they have lost. Guy Forget gambled on sacrificing his best doubles team in favour of greater singles strength, and it nearly worked. The doubles could have gone either way, and Grosjean proved an admirable replacement for Richard Gasquet, who woke up on Sunday morning still tired after his four hours 48 minutes on court with Youzhny on Friday night, and suffering from sore feet. Yet the French will have a sore head after coming so close, and once again failing to overpower the Russian bear.
Russia will now host Germany in September's semifinals, probably in Moscow, but results elsewhere mean the Russians can no longer host the final. If they beat Germany, they would be away to Sweden or USA. But this weekend has shown that, whether home or away, it will be mighty difficult to dislodge Russia from the top of the Davis Cup nations ranking.