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thestar: Safin shocks another giant

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 yesterday’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 quarter-finals, won 7-6 (6), 7-6 (6), 5-7, 1-6, 6-3 in a calm, consistent and powerful display.

The unseeded Russian ended Agassi’s 26-match winning streak at the Australian Open — an Open era record — and denied the American a shot at a ninth Grand Slam tournament 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 next 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.

Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters will play for the women’s No. 1 spot after winning their semifinals.

Henin-Hardenne downed No. 32 Fabiola Zuluaga of Colombia 6-2, 6-2, and Clijsters eliminated No. 22 Patty Schnyder of Switzerland, 6-2, 7-6 (2).

This will be the third all-Belgian final in four Grand Slams, and the second straight not to feature the Williams sisters. Clijsters is 0-3 in Grand Slam finals, including two losses to Henin-Hardenne.

“In those matches, I knew where the problem was laying and I knew that it wasn’t psychological,” said Clijsters, who has a 9-8 edge in head-to-heads. “I was a little bit exhausted at the end of those two Slams. This year, I think I’ve become a little bit smarter.”

Henin-Hardenne made 25 unforced errors, including 15 in the second set against Zuluaga, the first Colombian woman to reach a Grand Slam semifinal.

“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,” Henin-Hardenne said.

“But I think that both Kim and me are getting familiar and used to this situation.”

Agassi won Australian titles in 2000, 2001 and 2003 and hadn’t 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 all of 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 then 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, 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 quarter-finals when an injured Sebastien Grosjean pulled out in the second set.

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