Agassi a bit player in Federer spectacle

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The Independent Online

Thomas Johansson said recently that the best way to defeat Roger Federer was to beat him up in the locker-room before a match. Other players have suggested that the only sane strategy is to wait for Federer to have an off day. Looking ahead to their quarter-final here at the Australian Open, Andre Agassi mused: "I mean, somebody has to beat him sooner or later, right?"

Thomas Johansson said recently that the best way to defeat Roger Federer was to beat him up in the locker-room before a match. Other players have suggested that the only sane strategy is to wait for Federer to have an off day. Looking ahead to their quarter-final here at the Australian Open, Andre Agassi mused: "I mean, somebody has to beat him sooner or later, right?"

That somebody was not Agassi, who found himself completely outclassed yesterday by the world No 1 and defending champion. The veteran American lost, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, capitulating meekly in a match that lasted one hour, 39 minutes - substantially shorter than the women's quarter-final between Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova.

The encounter between the two great champions - one in his twilight years, the other at the peak of his awesome powers - had been hotly anticipated as the showpiece tie of the tournament. But it was a disappointingly lopsided affair, with Agassi reduced to a bit player in a spectacle single-handedly directed and starred in by Federer.

"I wanted tonight to be memorable, but it's one I'd probably prefer to forget," said Agassi, an eight times Grand Slam champion who has won four of his titles on Rod Laver Arena. "I never got my teeth into the match, and when I don't do that, I can look pretty ordinary." Federer, by contrast, said that "for me, it was a perfect match".

The top seed drew on his seemingly limitless repertoire of shots, but was most dazzling on serve. He produced 22 aces, often at crucial moments, and won 77 per cent of points on his first serve. Agassi, who turns 35 in April, did not convert any of his four break points.

Asked to rate Federer's level of play, the No 8 seed said: "Way better than mine. He does everything well and lots of things great. You've got to play one heck of a match right now to beat him."

The man for whom those words will resonate most sharply is Marat Safin, who is next in line in the attempt to halt Federer's 25-match winning streak. Safin, who beat Dominik Hrbaty, of Slovakia, in straight sets, will meet him in the semi-finals.

The 24-year-old Russian lost to Federer in the Australian Open final last year, but gave him a scare in the semi-finals of the Masters Cup in Houston, where Federer won only after a marathon match. "I really felt that I can give him trouble," Safin said. "For me, it was great to see that I have a chance."

Federer, who also holds the Wimbledon and US Open titles, returned the compliment, saying: "I have the feeling that Safin is playing really good. I'm really looking forward to the contest with him." The Russian No 4 seed, a former US Open champion, made mincemeat of Hrbaty, beating him 6-2, 6-4, 6-2 in 90 minutes.

Serena Williams was gracious after her 6-2, 6-2 victory over Amélie Mauresmo, but revenge is on her mind. After losing to Sharapova in last year's Wimbledon final and again in the final of the year-end tour championship, she is itching to settle a score in the semi-finals here. Williams, the No 7 seed, took 71 minutes to crush Mauresmo. The French No 2 seed saved a match point at 1-5, but the American sealed victory with an ace in the following game.

Sharapova defeated Kuznetsova 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 after an intense and engaging match played in punishing heat. Temperatures soared above 35C during their two-hour, 17-minute clash. "I need a wheelchair right now," Sharapova joked after a match that she described as one of the toughest of her career.

The conditions, which led to the roof being closed for the Safin-Hrbaty tie, led both women to seek refuge in the thin ribbon of shade at the back of the court between points and drape themselves in towels from the icebox. Kuznetsova, the 19-year-old US Open champion, dominated in the first set, but the momentum changed completely in the second, with the No 5 seed losing seven service games in a row.

Sharapova, the No 4 seed and Wimbledon champion, urged herself on with Lleyton Hewitt-esque "c'mons", and it was her sheer willpower and determination not to lose that decided the outcome. Serving at 2-5 in the third set, Kuznetsova produced her fourth double-fault to yield a match point, and then sealed her fate with a forehand error.

"My body was there, but my mind wasn't there at all," she said. "It was just, I don't know, ball boys playing out there. I didn't deserve to win because I just didn't fight."

¿ The future of the women's Wimbledon warm-up tournament at Eastbourne has been secured for two further years with a sponsorship deal worth around £600,000 with Hastings Direct.

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