Roddick loses to Safin; Agassi advances

Updated: January 27, 2004, 3:56 PM ET news services

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.