<
>

Safin snaps 26-match win streak

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Marat Safin ended top-ranked Roger Federer's 26-match winning streak in a classic Australian Open semifinal, outlasting the defending champion 5-7, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (6), 9-7 in a dazzling 4½-hour match.

Safin, seeded fourth and trying to regain the No. 1 ranking he held briefly after winning the 2000 U.S. Open, overcame an unusually jittery Federer, who hadn't dropped a set in five
previous matches here, including a quarterfinal domination of Andre
Agassi.

Federer received treatment for elbow and back pain in the fifth set, then saved six match points before Safin broke him with a forehand into an open court as Federer watched from his knees. The
4-hour, 28-minute match ended Friday at 12:25 a.m. local time.

Safin, reaching the final at Melbourne Park for the third time in four years, next meets the winner of Friday night's semifinal between second-ranked Andy Roddick and No. 3 Lleyton Hewitt (ESPN2, 3:30 a.m. ET).

Safin against Federer was pure crowd-pleasing tennis between two of the game's most gifted all-around players. Every point was a
struggle as they punished weak shots and swapped stinging
groundstrokes and drop volleys.

"It's like a brain fight against ... Roger Federer," Safin
said. "I think we played the best we could and I couldn't give any
more than that."

Safin was exhausted going into last year's final -- which he lost to Federer -- after six matches that averaged three hours. Demonstrating the skills that took him to No. 1 after his only
Grand Slam title at Flushing Meadows, he was much fresher this time -- and he needed to be.

"I'm not playing against just a simple player. He's No. 1 in
the world," said Safin. It was his birthday on Thursday, and he
planned a quiet celebration with a glass of champagne when he got
back to his room in the early hours of Friday morning.

"It was one of the toughest matches of my life. I need time to
recover," he said. "Five sets is a kind of lottery. Anything can
happen."

While serving at 5-6, he mis-hit a forehand, then sent a
backhand long to give Federer the first set. Frustrated, the
mercurial Russian tossed his racket high in the air and missed the
catch.

Federer then lost his first set of the tournament, showing the
first real signs of tension in 11 days. Serving at 1-1 in the
second set, he smacked an overhead wide, then hit a backhand into
the net for the only break. Safin held serve the rest of the way.

Usually unflappable, Federer committed an uncharacteristic 14
errors in the set to just five for Safin. Clearly frustrated, he
shouted at himself after missing opportunities and began charging
the net more frequently than usual.

As in the first set, Federer broke with Safin serving at 5-6 in
the fourth set. Safin smashed his second racket of the tournament
after one error, and sent a forehand way long.

The last time they met in a tiebreaker, Federer prevailed 20-18
at the Masters Cup. This time, Safin turned the tables. He trailed
5-2 before running off the next three points. Federer made a
stunning drop shot from the baseline to pull ahead again to 6-5 and
serve for the match. Safin then won the next three points to force
a deciding fifth set.

Federer called in trainer Paul Ness, who massaged his right
forearm and elbow. Three games later, Ness returned to stretch out
his back as he lay on the court.

Federer said he felt some pain in his right arm, from the
shoulder to his fingers.

"It's not an injury; it's just something that was bothering
me," he said.

Safin took a 4-2 lead in the deciding set as Federer committed
his seventh double fault on break point. Federer got back on serve
by saving two match points at Safin served 5-3, then broke to get
back on serve. Federer fended off another match point in the next
game, another two while serving at 6-7 and a sixth at 7-8 before
Safin finished it.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.