Safin is all aces in ousting Agassi, 4-time champion

Russian's 33 aces against zero double faults spark five-set win, move to final

Australian Open

January 30, 2004|By Lisa Dillman | Lisa Dillman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Instead of exiting stage left, walking directly to the tunnel leading off the court at Rod Laver Arena, Andre Agassi detoured, turning right and heading toward the area between the net and the service line.

He dropped his equipment bag, bowing and accepting the adulation of the cheering crowd.

How many times have we seen this after an extraordinary victory by Agassi? But this time, the extraordinary victory had been posted by his opponent, Marat Safin of Russia.

Safin ended Agassi's 26-match winning streak at Melbourne Park, defeating the defending champion and No. 4 seed, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (6), 5-7, 1-6, 6-3, yesterday in the semifinals of the Australian Open.

With the retractable roof closed because of inclement weather, Safin had 33 aces and, incredibly, no double faults.

This might have been Agassi's farewell moment Down Under. "Just saying thank you to them," Agassi said. "They've been great to me over the years. Just a lot of fun to compete in front of. And you never know when it's your last, right? So you want to say bye properly."

The chances of returning here in 2005, however, remain "pretty good."

"I have no plans to do otherwise," he said. "But, you know, a year's a long time. I really look forward to coming back."

Clearly, it was an emotional night for Agassi. His eyes glistened as he spoke in the interview room after the marathon match, which lasted 3 hours, 42 minutes. This was only the fourth time that the four-time champion had lost in 48 matches at the Australian Open, and the first since Vince Spadea beat him in 1999 in the fourth round.

Initially, Safin was at a loss for words. "I still don't know," he said in his on-court interview. "I don't have the words to describe it."

Agassi had two set points in the first, served for the second set at 5-4, and had a set point in the tiebreaker, only to emerge down, two sets to love. Still, he kept chipping away in his usual strategic way. With both players hitting hard, though, the semifinal looked like a chess match on speed.

Once Safin fell behind in the fourth set, he conserved his energy for the fifth, then broke Agassi's serve in the fourth game, which proved to be decisive when Agassi pulled a forehand wide.

Said Safin, who will play No. 2 Roger Federer of Switzerland or No. 3 Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain in Sunday's final: "I think I played one of my best matches in my whole life, probably."

Agassi kept his sense of humor when it was pointed out that Safin had no double faults. "Please ask him that and then call me and tell me why he did that," Agassi said, smiling. "I hate it when he does that. Yeah, it's a good effort."

Safin, 24, has been a revelation here, playing 27 sets in six matches, knocking off Americans in four consecutive matches and reaching a Grand Slam final after missing a good portion of last year with an injured wrist.

The foundation, though, was laid in December. When Agassi was running up his familiar hill in Las Vegas, Safin was putting in hill work and interval training six days a week in Monte Carlo, according to his trainer, Walt Landers.

"One month makes difference," said Landers, who added that they had used some of the training techniques of track star Sebastian Coe, an Olympic gold medalist in the 1,500 meters in 1980 and 1984.

Even at his worst, Safin had the ability to flick on his talent like a light switch, winning the 2000 U.S. Open. Though he is remembered for losing the 2002 Australian Open final, it was he who beat Pete Sampras in what turned out to be Sampras' last match in Melbourne, winning in four sets in the fourth round.

And so, will he also be the one who took out Agassi in his last match at the Australian Open? Agassi's trainer, Gil Reyes, cautioned against reading too much into the bow. Reyes said that they talked recently about a particular Garth Brooks song, and Agassi commented on how it would be if you never really got to express how you felt.

"I was a little surprised by the bow," said Reyes, who acknowledged they were "in the homestretch" of Agassi's career.

"More than surprised and curious, I was touched by it. In his eyes, the bow is the ultimate gesture. ... It's not a showman bow, it's as humble as you can get. That's what I think it was.

"Don't read into this as Andre saying goodbye, however, just -- you might realize that you've seen a guy who realizes he might not be back."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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