Federer wins Australian Open to keep No. 1 ranking

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 2, 2004

MELBOURNE, Australia - Roger Federer skipped the sobbing this time. He is, after all, getting familiar with the honor: Grand Slam tournament champion.

Playing shrewd and confident tennis that has left him at No. 1, Federer won the Australian Open 7-6 (3), 6-4, 6-2 Sunday against a weary and frustrated Marat Safin.

Federer has captured two of the last three majors following his Wimbledon triumph.

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''I feel like I'm living the game when I'm out there,'' the Swiss star said. ''When a a guy is going to hit the ball, I know exactly the angles and the spins. I just feel that I've got that figured out.''

It was enough to end Safin's great run. The unseeded Russian beat top-seeded Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals, then stopped defending champion Andre Agassi's 26-match winning streak at the Australian Open in the semis.

But after more than 18 hours and 27 sets in six rounds, Safin had little left. Federer clearly was fresher, having spent just more than 10 hours on court and losing only two sets.

When Federer won Wimbledon last summer, he responded with sobs of relief. At Melbourne Park, he was moved, bur far more composed and controlled.

''What a great start to the year for me, to win the Australian Open and become No. 1 in the world,'' Federer said. ''It means a lot to me.''

A day earlier, Justine Henin-Hardenne added another title, winning a third all-Belgian Grand Slam final against Kim Clijsters to remain No. 1. The 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 victory was her third major in eight months.

Federer, seeded second, was already ensured the top ranking by beating third-seeded Juan Carlos Ferrero in the semifinals. Roddick's loss in the quarterfinals ended the U.S. Open champion's stay No. 1.

In addition to his two major titles, Federer also won the season-ending Masters Cup at Houston.

''When it gets important, I feel like I can raise my game,'' he said.

He surely did that against Safin. The Russian slammed his racket to the court and drew a code violation when he smashed a racket after a double-fault. He talked to himself and to the crowd; he shook his head and shrugged after most of his 41 unforced errors.

Against Agassi, one of the best serve returners in the game, Safin had 31 aces and no double-faults. Against Federer, the balls kept coming back.

Federer chased overheads and forehands down the line that had the look of winners. Safin, the 2000 U.S. Open champion down, was drained.

''I was out of energy, my legs were just too tired,'' he said. ''I was a little too tired to keep up with him. I felt that I was missing just a little bit. Against Roger, you have to do better than that. I'm not playing a yo-yo.''

Safin lost his last six matches in 2003, a rough year in which he struggled with an ailing wrist. He entered the tournament at No. 86 and will improve to the low 30s on Monday.

''I'm actually very glad to be in finals again,'' he said. ''I'm really glad to play my best tennis after the injuries I had last year.''

He did get one reward for his marathon effort in Melbourne, matching Harold Solomon's record of 30 sets for a Grand Slam tournament set in the 1976 French Open.

Henin-Hardenne, with three Grand Slams, wants a fourth - on grass.

''Wimbledon this year, for sure, is going to be another goal,'' she said after adding the Australian to her wins at the French and U.S. Open last year.

She's proved too good for Clijsters in their last three meetings in majors following a stretch in which the Williams sisters dominated.

''I still have to improve my game on grass, especially against the strong players like Venus or Serena,'' Henin-Hardenne said. ''I always lost against them over there because they're so powerful.''

In Melbourne, she didn't have to face Venus Williams, who was upset in the third round by Lisa Raymond. Williams was seeded third even though her ranking dropping to No. 11 during her six months of inactivity because of an abdominal strain. She will drop to No. 14.

Serena didn't fully recover from August knee surgery to defend her Australian title.

Coming into a Grand Slam tournament seeded No. 1 was a new experience for Henin-Hardenne.

''I probably didn't play my best tennis in this tournament, but mentally I've been strong,'' she said. ''I played my best when I had to.''

Martina Navratilova made her last appearance at Melbourne Park when she and Leander Paes lost the mixed doubles final. The defending champs fell 6-1, 7-6 (3) to Elena Bovina and Nenad Zimonjic.

The 47-year-old Navratilova has won 58 Grand Slam titles, including nine in mixed doubles.

''I'm not saying goodbye to playing tennis, I'm just saying goodbye to hitting the ball here,'' she said. ''I've still got a whole year to go.''