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Agassi bows out of Open

Defending champ fails in bid for ninth Grand Slam, falling to former No.1 Marat Safin.

Wire services
Published January 30, 2004

MELBOURNE, Australia - Andre Agassi put his fingers to his lips and bowed after going five sets with Marat Safin.

He blew kisses to all corners of the court in what has become a postmatch ritual.

"You never know when it's your last," Agassi said. "So you want to say bye properly."

It was certainly goodbye for the 33-year-old Agassi at this Australian Open. The defending champion rallied after dropping the first two sets but lost Thursday's semifinal to an opponent who has fortified his game and is playing as if he were No.1 again.

Safin, who upset top-ranked Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals, won 7-6 (8-6), 7-6 (8-6), 5-7, 1-6, 6-3 in a calm, consistent and powerful display.

The unseeded Russian ended Agassi's 26-match win streak at the Australian Open - an Open era record - and denied the American a shot at a ninth Grand Slam title.

"It couldn't go any better," said Safin, the 2000 U.S. Open champion. "I think I played one of my best matches in my whole life."

Safin meets the winner of today's semifinal between Wimbledon champion Roger Federer and French Open champ Juan Carlos Ferrero, a showdown for the No.1 ranking.

Agassi won Australian titles in 2000, 2001 and 2003 and had not lost a match at Melbourne Park since the fourth round in 1999.

"You have to play really great against Andre to beat him," Safin said.

Safin entered the tournament ranked No.86 after struggling in 2003 with a wrist injury sustained in the first round of last season's Australian Open.

"I came here to try to win it. And I'm almost there, just one left to go," he said. "Everything is going my way for the moment."

Agassi, seeded fourth, was tested like never before in Melbourne.

"I could possibly have won in straight sets - it's a four-point swing there," he said. "It's certainly the toughest day I've had."

After giving up triple-match point with a wayward backhand return, Agassi watched as Safin ripped a backhand winner down the line to seal victory.

Before facing Agassi, Safin beat four other Americans - Brian Vahaly, Todd Martin, Tampa's James Blake and Roddick, the U.S. Open champion.

All three semifinals were played under the roof at Rod Laver Arena because of rain. The cooler conditions worked for Safin, who had spent more than 15 hours on court in five matches.

Agassi was fresher after four straight-sets wins and a default in the quarterfinals when an injured Sebastien Grosjean pulled out in the second set.

Safin reached the Australian final in 2002 when Agassi was out with an injured wrist. He has not been back to the final at a major since and missed the last three in 2003 after withdrawing in the third round in Australia.

Against Agassi, he resembled the player who upset Pete Sampras to win the 2000 U.S. Open.

"I managed to stay with him on the baseline. I managed to serve 33 aces - for me it's a big thing," said Safin, who did not have a double fault. "It gives you much more confidence."

Agassi expects he will return to the Australian Open for another try.

"Right now, I've got no plans to do otherwise," he said.

Belgian showdown set for women's final

They played kids' tennis together in Belgium, shared hotel rooms as teenagers and respect each other on and off the court.

Tonight, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters meet in the final, the third time in nine months the Belgians will play for a Grand Slam championship.

Clijsters is looking for a breakthrough, having lost to top-ranked Henin-Hardenne in the French Open and U.S. Open.

The Belgians advanced to the final with straight-set wins Thursday. Henin-Hardenne defeated Fabiola Zuluaga 6-2, 6-2 and Clijsters, still bothered by a bruised left ankle, beat Patty Schnyder 6-2, 7-6 (7-2).

"It's going to be another great moment in my career," Henin-Hardenne said. "And people are going to make a lot of noise, again - it's an all-Belgian final, which I understand is huge for a little country."

Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne have played 17 matches as pros, including eight times in 2003, with Clijsters holding a 9-8 edge.

But the two that mattered most came last year, when Henin-Hardenne won the French Open 6-0, 6-4 and the U.S. Open 7-5, 6-1.

The progress of Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters has been amazingly similar at Melbourne Park, where both are in the final for the first time.

Neither has dropped a set in six matches. Henin-Hardenne won her first-round match 6-0, 6-0. One round later, Clijsters won 6-0, 6-0.

Henin-Hardenne has lost 31 of 75 games at the Open; Clijsters has lost 30-of-74. Henin-Hardenne spent 7 hours, 19 minutes total on court, 35 minutes more than Clijsters.

Both beat high seeds in the quarterfinals. Henin-Hardenne topped No.5 Lindsay Davenport; Clijsters dispatched No.6 Anastasia Myskina.

Despite their Grand Slam history, Clijsters does not believe Henin-Hardenne holds a psychological edge.

"I know what the problem was, and it wasn't mental," said Clijsters, who can take the No.1 ranking with a win. I hope I have learned from those losses, so maybe third-time lucky."

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