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Roddick loses to Safin; Agassi advances

1/27/2004

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Andy Roddick was gone by the time
the crowd began serenading Marat Safin with "Happy Birthday."

Roddick smashed his racket and headed off the court, losing his
shot at an Australian Open title and his No. 1 ranking, too.

He was beaten 2-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-7 (0), 6-4 Tuesday by Safin in
the quarterfinals, falling to a player ranked 86th who limped and
winced, called for the trainer and needed a painkiller to make it
through the match.

Roddick will fall from No. 1 when the ATP entry rankings are released Monday. Who takes his place remains to be seen.

If Roger Federer wins his quarterfinal match against David Nalbandian, then Juan Carlos Ferrero would have to win the Grand Slam to be assured the top ranking. If Federer loses his quarterfinal, Ferrero would have to only reach the final to become No. 1.

If both players advance to the semifinals, Ferrero would need to win the title to be No. 1. Fourth-ranked Andre Agassi cannot improve his position even by winning the championship.

Agassi, the defending champion, practically had the day off. He
advanced when ninth-seeded Sebastien Grosjean retired after 10
games with a recurring groin strain. Agassi was leading 6-2, 2-0.

But Safin delivered an unmistakable statement on his 24th
birthday: He is back on his game after upsetting the reigning U.S.
Open champion.

"People think of Marat and they think of temperamental,"
Roddick said. "He is all those things, but at the same time when
it comes down to it, he wants to win and he's competitive."

The Russian's performance was not lost on the stadium crowd,
which admired his grit and heart and was in full voice after a
victory that sent Safin into the semifinals against Andre Agassi.

"I can't ask for anything else," said Safin. "It's probably the best birthday I ever had,
especially when 15,000 people are singing."

This was the first time Roddick was seeded first at a Grand
Slam and he was the first of the reigning Grand Slam champs among
the men to exit the tournament.

Wimbledon champion Federer and French Open champ Ferrero now will compete for the No. 1 ranking. Federer,
seeded second, faces Nalbandian on Wednesday in the
quarterfinals, and Ferrero plays Hicham Arazi.

Safin was the U.S. Open champion in 2000 and Australian Open
runner-up in 2002, but he missed most of last year because of
injury and there was some question if he would ever return to
tennis' elite.

Roddick said he's not worried about losing the top ranking to
Roger Federer or Juan Carlos Ferrero, who have quarterfinals
Wednesday, because he'll have chances to get it back.

"No one can take away from me the fact that I was there and
that I did have it," he said. "It's going to be jumping around, I
think, a little bit this year."

In last year's Australian Open, Safin tore ligaments in his left wrist during a first-round
match. This time, he rallied from a slow start against the
21-year-old Roddick and showed that his skills haven't eroded.

For nearly 3½ hours, Safin and Roddick matched ace for ace and
swapped line drives in long baseline rallies.

Safin won over much of the crowd as he came
back after losing the first set while making 18 unforced errors.
But Roddick had his own fervent fans, including a trio of young men
in star-adorned red, white and blue skirts and "U," "S" and
"A" painted on their bare chests on a cool night.

In the second set, Safin clutched his upper left leg after
halfheartedly chasing a passing shot in the opening game. Safin was
getting just half his first serves into play and won only once on
11 second serves.

"I was just as confused as anyone," Roddick said. "You know,
I was thinking he was quick to call the trainer. He was stretching
a lot in that one game. Then I guess he just decided he was going
to play through it, you know, and suck it up."

Coming back from the medical timeout, Safin was a new man. He
raised his winning first-serve percentage to 82. He had winners
eight of the nine times he went to the net, putting Roddick off his
baseline game.

"I didn't think about stopping," said Safin, who said his
strained groin was bothering him at the start.

"Then just when I was returning the serves, I pulled a little
bit," he said. "Then I took some painkillers, and that's it."

Roddick couldn't tell how bad Safin was hurting, but he suspects
the timeout helped.

"Maybe that relaxed him, maybe that let him play a little bit
more carefree because he started hitting the ball great," he said.
"He was a lot better than me for that second and third set."

Safin broke Roddick in the ninth game of the deciding set and
then faced two break points serving for the match. He saved one
with an ace, Roddick dumped a return into the net, and Safin
finished things off with an overhead.

"The most important thing is: I'm back," Safin said.

Safin has spent more than 15 hours on court and disposed of four
Americans in five matches -- Brian Vahaly, Todd Martin, James Blake
and Roddick.

"I felt there were some good things out there and some things
that I can try and build on," Roddick said. "It's a little
disappointing, but I felt like, even when I was missing shots, it
was the third or fourth good shot I was hitting in the rally. He
played great."

Agassi hasn't dropped a set and is on a 26-match winning streak
at Melbourne Park that started with his second title in 2000. He sat
out 2002 after wrist surgery.

The 33-year-old Agassi noticed Grosjean, a semifinalist in 2001,
was going for low-percentage shots late in the first set but didn't
know the Frenchman was injured.

Agassi took the first four games, won the set 6-2 and pulled
ahead 2-0 in the second when Grosjean, who was out eight weeks last
year with the same injury, defaulted.

"That's not a good way for anything to end," Agassi said.
"It's been a great week for Sebastien, it's unfortunate. He'd
appreciate everyone's understanding."

Grosjean said he felt the problem in the fourth game. The
Frenchman had similar problems last year and tried to keep playing,
which resulted in him being sidelined for eight weeks.

"I felt something really hard in my leg straightaway,"
Grosjean said. "It was tough after that to move, so I couldn't
really move and give 100 percent."

Grosjean had been struggling to keep pace with Agassi
during the 44 minutes they were was on court.

"I would have preferred to finish the match, no question,"
Agassi said. "It's not that I feel like now I'm sort of not
prepared. But you just don't want any match to end that way."

Agassi extended his win streak to 26 matches at the Australian
Open, spanning championships in 2000, '01 and last season.

Information from The Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.