Federer falls at last as Safin triumphs in classic

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How to beat Roger Federer? The question that has been consuming top players was finally answered by the brilliant and mercurial Marat Safin well after midnight yesterday, but only after four hours and 28 minutes and seven match points.

How to beat Roger Federer? The question that has been consuming top players was finally answered by the brilliant and mercurial Marat Safin well after midnight yesterday, but only after four hours and 28 minutes and seven match points.

The extraordinary match will take its place among the classics, and its outcome has turned the men's game on its head. The Swiss world No 1 won four of the last six Grand Slams, and had not lost a tie since the Athens Olympics. In his five previous rounds here at Melbourne Park, he had not dropped a single set.

Safin took him to five sets, kept his cool and outplayed the most talented man since Pete Sampras.

The Russian saved a match point in the fourth set and produced some of the best tennis of his career to win 5-7, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6, 9-7, ending Federer's 26-match winning streak.

The No 4 seed, who celebrated his 25th birthday yesterday, drew on his innermost reserves after seeing chance after chance to seal victory slip away.

Safin faltered on the match points, he said, because there was such a fearsome opponent on the other side of the net.

"I couldn't believe it, and that puts you under pressure," said Safin, who will play Andy Roddick or Lleyton Hewitt in the final on Sunday. "When it came to the moment, I was choking a little bit. That's what we call it in tennis."

Until last night, the Swiss No 1 seed seemed unassailable. But the crowd on Rod Laver Arena saw astonishing sights. Federer under pressure. Federer making mistakes. Federer rattled, berating himself in fury. Federer pushed to the limit and found wanting. Federer the loser, shaking Safin's hand after padding wearily to the net. He said later: "I can leave feeling good because I gave it all I've got. He was the better player. I'm hoping for a re-match."

At first the tie went according to script. The defending Australian Open champion took the first set after breaking Safin's serve at 5-6. But the Russian bounced back, winning the second, again after just one break of serve. It was clear that a proper match, rather than the usual Federer stroll, was unfolding.

The third set was tightly fought, but the No 1 seed had the edge. Safin remained - by his own standards - calm, smashing only one racket and smacking just one ball high into the air. The Swiss man, by contrast, was visibly unsettled. After losing a 19-ball rally at a crucial juncture, he sat down briefly in a linesman's chair at the back of the court.

On his own match point, serving at 6-5 in the fourth set tiebreak, he tried to return a Safin lob with a trick shot between his legs. He failed, and gave a credible impression of the Edvard Munch painting, The Scream.

Then came the wild and dramatic fifth set. Safin - who lost to Federer in last year's final - kissed goodbye to two match points in the ninth game, then another in the 10th game and yet another two in the 14th.

In the 16th game, he had double match point. Federer saved one, then Safin unleashed a forehand winner. He bent over the net, exhausted. The crowd gave Federer a standing ovation, then sang the victor "Happy Birthday".

Serena Williams and Lindsay Davenport - two former champions, both determined to prove they are not has-beens - will meet in the women's final tomorrow, after beating Maria Sharapova and Nathalie Dechy respectively. Williams recovered from one set down and saved three match points before vanquishing the 17-year-old Russian.

The American is incensed by suggestions that she and her sister, Venus, have lost their grip on the top echelons of the game. Serena has not won a Grand Slam since Wimbledon 2003, while Venus has been without a major title since the 2001 US Open.

Serena's 2-6, 7-5, 8-6 victory was particularly sweet, Sharapova having got the better of her at last year's Wimbledon final and then again in the final of the year-end tour championship.

She broke the Russian's serve as she served for the match in the second set, and returned from the brink again in the third. "I was really happy to get through," she said.

Sharapova said: "I gave it all I had. But I didn't take my chances when I could. She took her chances, and that's why she won."

Davenport ended last season as world No 1, but took little pleasure from it because she did not win a major title. She is thirsting to end her five-year drought in Melbourne, where she last raised a Grand Slam trophy in 2000. She beat Dechy 2-6, 7-6, 6-4 in her semi-final.

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