Safin rolls ankle but still triumphs

Updated: January 21, 2005, 10:18 AM ET news services

MELBOURNE, Australia -- While top seed Roger Federer walked into a historic record streak, fourth-seeded Marat Safin survived a scare to advance to the fourth round at the Australian Open on Friday.

Federer earned his career-best 24th straight victory on Friday when Jarkko Nieminen was force to retire from the third-round match because of an abdominal muscle tear.

Federer led 6-3, 5-2 and had just broken Nieminen's serve for the third time in the set when the 25-year-old Finnish player winced, clutched his right side and told the umpire he couldn't continue.

Federer won 11 titles in 2004, including three Grand Slams. He opened 2005 with a title at Qatar -- the 23rd of his career -- and hasn't lost since the second-round of the Athens Olympics last August.

Nieminen broke Federer's serve in the opening game. He did it again in the fourth game of the second set, but a clean backhand, cross-court winner from the 23-year-old Swiss star in the next game set the tone for the remainder of the match.

Safin picked himself up after twisting his right ankle and overcame hard-serving Mario Ancic 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.

Safin, who lost to Federer in last year's Australian Open final, led by a set and a break when he twisted his ankle and fell on his face near the baseline while trying to return Ancic's winning forehand in the third game of the fourth set.

Safin got up, limped back to his chair and was treated by trainer Per Bastholt, who gave the Russian player a pill and wound more tape around his already heavily taped ankle.

Safin won his next service game at love with an ace, joking with a line judge who'd earlier called one of his serves wide.

He advanced on his second match point when the 28th-seeded Ancic couldn't handle a slice backhand and dumped a forehand into the net.

Ancic reached the semifinals at Wimbledon last year, upsetting Britain's Tim Henman in the quarterfinals, and was a tough, third-round opponent for Safin.

"It's difficult to have a game plan against him. He mixes it up so much," Safin said. "You have to hang in there and wait for opportunities."

Safin broke Ancic -- who misfired with seven double-faults -- once in each set and lost his service just twice in the second set.

Both players were demonstrative, criticizing themselves behind the baseline. Safin often kicked the ball, and knocked his head with his knuckles, trying to regain focus.

"It's a wake-up call," Safin said. "Sometimes my head goes away and doesn't come back -- I have to get it back here."

Four-time champion Andre Agassi used lobs and stinging passes to hold off Taylor Dent 7-5, 7-6 (3), 6-1 Friday, reaching the fourth round of the Australian Open and moving closer to a showdown with Federer.

The eighth-seeded Agassi never faltered against his fellow American. Showing no ill effects from a torn tendon just before the season's opening Grand Slam tournament, Agassi committed only six unforced errors -- none in the final set.

The 29th-seeded Dent rushed the net on 136 of the 201 points but constantly found himself lunging and diving for shots, and winning only 51 percent of the forays. The packed center court roared in approval of the strong performance by both players.

"It's always a bit of a deceiving stat when you got a guy that's putting so much pressure," Agassi said. "It seems like any time I did miss, it was because he was putting pressure on me."

Dent is one of the few pure serve-and-volleyers left in tennis.

"If you're not on your game, he's one of the worst guys to play," Agassi said. "The guy's really talented, can make a lot of shots that you just don't expect him to be able to pull off, and he does them at the most important times."

Dent -- whose Aussie father, Phil, was a finalist in this tournament in 1974 -- was forced to retire in two previous Grand Slam meetings with Agassi. At the 2000 Wimbledon, Dent retired in the first set with a partially torn right patella tendon. In 2003, he had to withdraw from a third-round match at the U.S. Open with a lower right hamstring strain.

Agassi, who won titles here in 1995, 2000, 2001 and 2003, owns a career mark of 47-4 in the Australian Open, including winning 29 of his last 30 matches here. He had a 26-match winning streak here snapped by Safin in the semifinals last year.

Agassi next faces another power player, No. 11 Joachim Johannson of Sweden, who survived a four-hour struggle against No. 24 Feliciano Lopez of Spain that went to 13-11 in the fifth set.

Johansson ended the match with an ace, his 99th winner against 67 unforced errors. Lopez had 76 winners and 31 miscues.

"Tennis can be a very cruel and sometimes arguably unfair sport," Agassi said. "You've got to deal with what's thrown at you. I can honestly say I'm glad I didn't go 13-11 in the fifth."

French Open champion Gaston Gaudio needed treatment on both thighs during his 4 hour, 21-minute loss to Dominik Hrbaty.

Hrbaty broke Gaudio's serve, for the 10th time, and then served out for a 7-6 (5), 6-7 (8), 6-7 (3), 6-1, 6-3 victory. Hrbaty hit 70 winners, while Gaudio had 48.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.