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Agassi bows out of Open

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.

DOUBLES FINAL: Virginia Ruano Pascual and Paola Suarez won their fifth Grand Slam doubles title, beating Svetlana Kuznetsova and Elena Likhotseva 6-4, 6-3 in the women's final. It was the eighth straight Grand Slam final for Ruano Pascual and Suarez.

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