MELBOURNE, Australia -- Defending champion Andre Agassi was
beaten in the Australian Open semifinals Thursday, losing to a surging Marat Safin in five sets.
Agassi, bidding for his ninth Grand Slam title, fell 7-6 (6),
7-6 (6), 5-7, 1-6, 6-3 to an opponent who ousted top-ranked Andy
Roddick in the quarterfinals.
Agassi rallied after dropping the first two set but Safin
persevered, ending the fourth-seeded American's 26-match winning
streak at the Australian Open. Agassi called this ``the toughest
day I've had."
"Marat played at an incredibly high level," Agassi said. "I
forced him to play at that level the whole time. Sometimes you just
need a little luck at the right time. I had chances that went away."
With Agassi serving at 2-1 in the fifth set, Safin broke with a
good serve return that Agassi hit wide. He never gave Agassi a
chance to break back again, holding the rest of the way and
finishing off the match with a backhand winner down the line,
ending the match after 3 hours, 42 minutes.
"I don't have the words to describe what I'm feeling now," Safin said. "I don't have anything [left] inside me now."
Safin, the 2000 U.S. Open champion and runner-up at the
Australian Open in 2002, came into the tournament ranked No. 86.
Asked if he was playing as well as during his peak, Safin said: "It's so long ago, I don't really remember."
Safin, who turned 24 on Tuesday, will face the winner of Friday's semifinal between
second-seeded Roger Federer and No. 3 Juan Carlos Ferrero for the championship.
Fourth-seeded Agassi had two set points before losing the first
in a tiebreaker. Safin saved one on his own serve at deuce in the
10th game, when he hit a backhand winner down the line. Agassi's
next set point was at 6-5 in the tiebreaker, but Safin saved with a
backhand return at Agassi's feet. Safin went ahead 7-6 with a
forehand down the line and clinched the set with his 12th ace.
They swapped breaks in the second, and Agassi fended off two
break points while serving at 5-6 to force another tiebreaker. He
again had a set point at 6-5, but Safin followed with a backhand
winner, his 20th ace, and another good serve return that Agassi hit
Agassi got one set back by breaking Safin at 5-6 in the third.
With the crowd cheering him loudly after he went ahead 15-40 for
his first break point of the set, Agassi sent back a service return
that Safin jammed into the net.
Safin, known for his temper, was soon muttering to himself after
a backhand into the net gave Agassi an early break in the fourth
set. Agassi broke again to go up 5-1 and took the set with a serve
that Safin couldn't get back.
Safin regained his composure in the deciding set. He made few errors in the fifth, and pumped his fists
after hitting the winning shot.
Agassi was the fifth American to lose to Safin, who also beat
Brian Vahaly, Todd Martin, James Blake and Roddick.
"I hope I didn't kill their confidence before Davis Cup," Safin said, referring to next week's match between the United States and Austria.
Agassi, who was seeking his ninth Grand Slam title, had won the
last three times that he played in the Australian Open, missing
only in 2002 while recuperating from wrist surgery.
Safin, a former No. 1 whose ranking tumbled because of wrist
problems last year, has proven throughout this tournament that he
still has the talent to win big matches.
The unseeded Russian knocked off top-ranked Andy Roddick in the
quarterfinals and had 33 aces against Agassi, one of the game's
best returners. Just as important, he largely kept his famed temper
in check despite the pressure on packed center court.