Safin topples Agassi to turn heat on Henman

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The Independent Online

Marat Safin ended the 34-year-old Andre Agassi's run at the Madrid Masters yesterday and put further pressure on Tim Henman in the battle for qualification for the Masters Cup in Houston next month.

Marat Safin ended the 34-year-old Andre Agassi's run at the Madrid Masters yesterday and put further pressure on Tim Henman in the battle for qualification for the Masters Cup in Houston next month.

If the third-seeded Safin defeats David Nalbandian, of Argentina, in this afternoon's final, he will replace Henman at No 6 in the points race. If Nalbandian prevails, he will add substance to his Houston challenge. Nalbandian defeated Ivan Ljubicic, Henman's third-round conqueror, 6-4 6-4, in the opening semi-final.

With Nalbandian's compatriot, Gaston Gaudio, already guaranteed a place in the Masters Cup as the winner of the French Open, only seven others can qualify, and three of those places have been filled.

Safin levelled his series of matches against Agassi, 3-3, defeating the icon from Las Vegas, 6-3 7-6, after an hour and 33 minutes. "He's got a big game and came in firing on all cylinders," Agassi said.

The pair contested one of the year's most spectacular matches over five sets in the semi-finals of the Australian Open, and a packed house at the Rockodromo here would have liked a longer show. Agassi's celebrated return of serve was crucial on an afternoon when his 24-year-old Russian opponent was primed to serve with power and consistency and keep his huge ground-strokes inside the lines.

At times, particularly in the second set, Agassi varied his tactics by standing on the baseline to receive Safin's first serve and by standing a yard behind the line for the second, hoping to put the ball back in play and invite Safin to make errors. He rarely succeeded. Safin made the decisive break for 4-2 in the first set and fended off Agassi's aggressive moves in the second, taking the tie-break 7-4.

Nalbandian, having made his Masters Cup intentions clear - "I'll fight to the end" - was too strong for Ljubicic, returning the Croatian's serve with keen-eyed confidence, containing his opponent with solid serves and bombarding him with deep ground-strokes.

The compact 22-year-old from Buenos Aires moves unhurriedly to make his shots, allowing his racket speed to do the damage. After breaking for 2-1 in the opening set, he was not troubled until serving out at 5-4. Ljubicic created two chances to break, but returned a second serve long on the first and overhit a forehand on the second.

Innovation has become the hallmark of this event, which was transformed into the Tennis Models Series Madrid. But the catwalk ball-girls were not the only distraction. A grey-haired spectator fell down the steps of his box trying to catch a ball and he - and probably his family viewing at home - had to suffer replays of the incident during the change-over.

Nalbandian provided further impromptu entertainment in the second set, first by spinning around to hit volleys, then by trying an acrobatic backhand-lob while balancing on his left hand.

Ljubicic was broken in the ninth game, netting a limp forehand after making an impressive serve at 15-40. Nalbandian, as in the first set, struggled to serve out at 5-4, this time recovering from 0-40 before converting his first match point.

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