The tennis world has a new king, and the prospect of a dream men's final tomorrow between the outrageously talented Roger Federer and the giant-killer of Melbourne Park, Marat Safin.
The lamb slaughtered to deliver this delectable match-up was Juan Carlos Ferrero, who was beaten 6-4, 6-1, 6-4 by Federer in the semi-finals of the Australian Open last night. Ferrero, who was suffering from groin injuries, barely put up a fight as Federer, the new No 1, swept him aside in one hour and 29 minutes.
The Swiss player, who took over the top ranking from Andy Roddick, Safin's quarter-final victim, sank to his knees on Rod Laver Arena to acknowledge the crowd's applause. Asked how it felt be No 1, he replied: "I love it." Of Safin, he said: "Great guy. Great match. Great player. I'm looking forward to it. He's one of my favourite guys to play against."
The 22-year-old Federer has won three out of their four previous encounters, but the pair have not played since 2002. Safin, who followed up his conquest of Roddick this week by knocking out the defending champion, Andre Agassi, was injured and off the scene for most of last year.
Last night's semi-final was disappointingly brief, Ferrero grimacing with pain as he moved around the court and lunged for the ball. The Spaniard, now ranked No 2, was treated for a left groin injury during his fourth-round match against Andre Pavel and experienced pain in both legs during his subsequent defeat of Hicham Arazi.
"It was a disaster," the French Open champion said. "I felt pain all the time. I couldn't play my best tennis because I couldn't get to the ball so well. If I had been 100 per cent, I could have won the match."
His problems flared up at 3-3 in the first set, when Federer saved three break points to recover from 0-40 down. From then on, the 23-year-old Ferrero was barely in the match. He held serve in the next game, but went 0-40 down at 5-4 and produced a backhand error to give the Wimbledon champion the first set.
In the second set, he was moving with difficulty and losing most of the rallies. Broken twice for 5-1, he sent a forehand into the net to give Federer two sets in less than an hour. In the third set, he surrendered a break of serve to go 4-3 down, allowing the Swiss man to serve out the match three games later.
Ferrero, who played with his left thigh strapped, said that he had considered retiring after the second round because of separate problems with his back and his elbow. "I'm a little disappointed," he said. "It's not easy to get to the semi-finals playing such good tennis but feeling so bad physically."
Federer, who has reached the final without the help of a coach, having parted ways with Peter Lundgren at the end of last year, said that the 24-year-old Russian was a formidable opponent. "I know he's got the game to win these tournaments," he said. "He's definitely one of the toughest players. It's good to see him back. We're all happy, but we're scared at the same time."
He said that, after taking over the top ranking for the first time, he had almost repeated his tearful performance at the Wimbledon trophy presentation. "I'm a guy who is rather calm on the outside but very emotional on the inside," he said. "It's such a satisfaction and joy to be No 1 in the men's tennis game."
The final may come down to survival of the fittest. Safin has spent 18 hours and 43 minutes on court in the lead-up whereas Federer's total playing time has been 10 hours 45 minutes.
In the mixed doubles, Leander Paes and Martina Navratilova beat Jonathan Erlich and Liezel Huber, 6-4, 6-4, to secure a place in tomorrow's final. Paes was playing in his first tournament since recovering from a brain abcess last year. The 47-year-old Navratilova reiterated her pledge to retire after this year. The pair will play Nenad Zimonjic and Elena Bovina in the final.
Australian Open tennis results
Semi-Finals: R FEDERER (Swit) bt J C FERRERO (Sp) 6-4 6-1 6-4.
Final: V RUANO PASCUAL (Sp) and P SUAREZ (Arg) bt S KUZNETSOVA and E LIKHOVTSEVA (Rus) 6-4 6-3.
Semi-Finals: N Zimonjic (Serb-M) and E Bovina (Rus) bt M Rodriguez (Arg) and R Grande (It) 6-3 7-6; L PAES (Ind) and M NAVRATILOVA (US) bt J Erlich (Isr) and L Huber (SA) 6-4 6-4.
Quarter-Finals: J OUANNA (Fr) bt B EVANS (US) 6-3 7-5; G MONFILS (Fr) bt S JENKINS (US) 6-4 6-1; K RASTOGI (Ind) bt F Fognini (It) 6-1 7-5; N Djokovic (Serb-M) bt M ZVEREV (Ger) 6-1 6-4.
Quarter-Finals: S PEER (Isr) bt S DUBOIS (Can) 6-4 6-0; N VAIDISOVA (Cz Rep) bt A IVANOVIC (Serb-M) 1-6 6-1 6-3; J GAJDOSOVA (Slovak) bt A Kerber (Ger) 7-6 6-3; T BACSINSZKY (Swit) bt A KUDRYAVTSEVA (Can) 6-3 4-6 6-2.
Quarter-Finals: G MONFILS and J OUANNA (Fr) bt C VAN KEULEN and R DE RIJKE (Neth) 6-2 6-2; D Galic and D Jeflea (Aus) bt T Liversage (SA) and T Peric (Croa) 7-5 6-4; B EVANS and S OUDESMA (US) bt S RIESCHICK and A WEBER (Ger) 6-4 7-5; N Djokovic (Serb-M) and S Jenkins (US) bt B Bacon and M Armstrong (Aus) 7-5 6-1.
Quarter-Finals: SUN SHENGNAN (Ch) and CHAN YUNG-JAN (Taiw) bt S ANCIC (Croa) and H EL TABAKH (Eg) 6-3 6-2; M ERAKOVIC (NZ) and E KOSMINSKAYA (Rus) bt Y Schnack and V King (US) 3-6 6-2 6-3; N VAIDISOVA and V CHVOJKOVA (Cz Rep) bt Kim So-jung (S Kor) and M Andersson (Swe) 6-1 6-0; J GAJDOSOVA (Slovak) and S PEER (Isr) bt M Mitchell and K Tsang (US) 6-4 6-2.
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