Safin power ends Agassi's love affair Down Under

Legend hints at retirement after losing five-set marathon
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The Independent Online

A Legend died last night, and another was created. Andre Agassi is no longer invincible in Australia, his favourite arena. Marat Safin, meanwhile, is apparently unbeatable.

Safin vanquished Agassi in five sets in the semi-finals of the Australian Open, ending his 26-match winning streak at Melbourne Park, one of the longest in the Open era. Minutes later, the visibly shaken American dropped a heavy hint that he is considering retirement.

For his part, Safin has rediscovered the exalted form that lifted him to a straight-sets victory over Pete Sampras at the 2000 United States Open final. In the space of 48 hours, he has knocked out Andy Roddick, the tournament's top seed, and Agassi, the defending champion.

His feats are all the more astonishing in the light of his absence from the tour for much of last year with various injuries. The 24-year-old Russian, who will play either Roger Federer or Juan Carlos Ferrero in the final, said after his 7-6, 7-6, 5-7, 1-6, 6-3 victory: "I think I played one of my best matches of my whole life. I couldn't feel any better."

Agassi, who recovered from two sets down to propel the semi-final into a fifth set, bowed and blew kisses to the crowd in Rod Laver Arena. It is his trademark flourish after winning a match. This time, though, he had been defeated. He had been thanking Australian fans, he explained later.

"They've been great to me over the years," he said. "Just a lot of fun to compete in front of. And you never know when it's your last. So you want to say bye properly." Asked if he would be returning next year, the man from Las Vegas replied: "Right now, I have no plans to do otherwise. But a year's a long time."

The No 4 seed, who turns 34 in April, has won the Australian Open title four times, three of them in the past four years - a run only interrupted by a wrist injury that forced him to withdraw in 2002. Before last night, he had not lost a match here since being knocked out in the fourth round by Vince Spadea in 1999.

The veteran player has often said that he would know when the time was right to retire, observing that it was unlikely to happen while he was still winning Grand Slams. Losing in Melbourne, where he seemed to have a charmed existence, must have been a heavy blow.

The immovable object that his unstoppable force encountered was a Safin both matured and rejuvenated by his break from the circuit. But the oldest man in the draw played phenomenally well too. Only a tie-break could prise them apart in the first set, and that was as closely fought as the set itself.

The pair produced tennis of the highest order and played with ferocious precision, battling from the back of the court, searching for ever more impossible angles. Safin displayed an agility remarkable in such a tall, powerful man. He won 170 points, Agassi 171. Despite the cold evening, both were dripping with sweat within a few games.

The American broke in the second set, then was broken back while serving for the set at 5-4. Agassi saved two set points; Safin saved one in the tie-break, then gave himself a set point with his 20th ace. An Agassi forehand dropped long. The Russian had two sets.

Now Agassi was looking his age, his pallor highlighted by his black outfit, worn perhaps to intimidate. His face became a canvas for expressions unfamiliar to Melbourne fans: alarm, bemusement, impatience, surprise. After one error, he smashed his hand violently with his racket.

But the eight times Grand Slam-winner is famous for never giving up. He broke Safin's serve at 6-5 to take the third set, then swiftly added the fourth as the Russian, who had played 22 sets en route to the semi-finals, looked increasingly tired. Another classic Agassi fightback appeared to be on the cards.

The Russian, who served 33 aces and did not commit a single double-fault, said later that he surrendered the fourth set to conserve energy for the fifth. It proved a wise move. He came back fresh and took the sole opportunity offered him: a break point in the fourth game. A backhand down the line on his first match point destroyed the American's hopes of contesting another final.

A subdued Agassi said: "It's definitely the toughest day I've had [at Melbourne Park]. Marat played at an incredibly high level, and he came up with a lot of great shots when he needed to."

Two years ago, Safin lost, almost absent-mindedly, to Thomas Johansson in the Australian Open final. This time would be different, he promised. "I've beaten so many good players and I'm full of confidence," he said. "I didn't come here just to make a couple of good matches. I came here to try to win it. And I'm almost there. Only one left to go."

Federer and Ferrero were due to meet in the second semi-final today. Safin remarked that both were great players with Grand Slam titles. "You're going to see a lot of us in the next few years, I hope," he said. "It's going to be the new generation."

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