Dudi Sela thrived in the Australian heat that reminded him of home in Israel. The rain brought him unstuck.
The 21-year-old qualifier was on the brink of a huge upset Wednesday with a tenacious and energetic performance against Marat Safin, taking the 2005 Australian Open champion to within two points of defeat.
The Russian former world No. 1's serve was broken nine times by the little-known Sela, who was leading by a set and was 30-30 at 5-6 in the fourth when rain began to fall.
Safin found his game after the break and defeated a cramping Sela 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-0.
Sela, who grew up in the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona that was hit by rockets during last year's conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hezbollah, was pleased just to get to his first five-set match as a professional.
"I knew not every day do I have a chance to win against Safin, who was No. 1 in the world," said Sela, who has lived in Tel Aviv for the past seven years. "Before the rain came on I knew in myself I was going to win the match."
"But when I came out to the court after the rain, I don't know why. I had cramps in both my legs. I didn't feel it in the tiebreak from adrenaline and everything, but in the fifth set I was dead."
It was Safin, who broke Sela 11 times but made 55 unforced errors, who spent most of the match worried.
"I was struggling on my serve, couldn't return his," he said. "And whatever I was doing, he was making passing shots all the way around the court, running around. He was full of energy, great spirit. I just couldn't find the key."
Safin was desperate to break Sela's momentum, and when the rain drops fell he quickly called for officials to stop play and close the roof on Rod Laver Arena.
"I used the opportunity," he said, reports AP.
"I was trying to make something change because of the way everything was going down the highway, one-way ticket, and there was no chance for me to break him. I just wanted to stop the match," Safin said.
Hot conditions in Melbourne on Tuesday, when temperatures of more than 40 C (104 F), have been an issue for some players, though Wednesday was much cooler.
The heat caused Sela no problems, and he breezed past Thailand's Paradorn Srichaphan 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 in the first round.
"I like this. It's the same as we have in Israel, so it's for my advantage," said Sela.
Sela said he almost quit tennis after breaking his elbow in a training accident last year that put him out of competition for four months. Now he has his eye on a top 100 placing this year.
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