Federer’s chances looking up

By John Pye The Associated Press

MELBOURNE, Australia – Look at what happens when Andre Agassi, Rafael Nadal and Marat Safin don’t show up because of injuries, and Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt lose in the early rounds.

Top-ranked Roger Federer went from a strong favorite to an overwhelming choice to win the Australian Open title when his closest contender lost yesterday to an excitable 20-year-old from Cyprus.

If Federer defeats 21st-seeded Nicolas Kiefer in today’s other semifinal, he’ll face former junior world champion Marcos Baghdatis in Sunday’s championship match.

Baghdatis rallied to oust fourth-seeded David Nalbandian 3-6, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, winning 17 of the last 21 points and enduring a break for a late storm when he was three points from winning.

“Everything is first time here: Getting to the quarters was the first time, getting to the semis was the first time, getting to the final – I hope it continues,” said Baghdatis, who had many Australians of Greek heritage, all dressed in blue, chanting for him inside Rod Laver Arena.

Nalbandian, the Masters Cup champion and 2002 Wimbledon finalist, is the last man – and one of only four in 2005 – to beat Federer.

Baghdatis aims to be the next.

“I believe it, my coach believes it, the guys I work with believe, my parents believe it,” said Baghdatis, ranked 54th. “I have worked for that … I’m very proud of myself … it’s been amazing.”

The women’s finalists were determined yesterday, with eighth-seeded Justine Henin-Hardenne and No. 3 Amelie Mauresmo winning semifinal matches.

Kim Clijsters, who ensured she’ll replace Lindsay Davenport at No. 1 in the new rankings when she defeated Martina Hingis in the quarterfinals, limped off with an injured right ankle while trailing Mauresmo 5-7, 6-2, 3-2 and 15-love.

Clijsters left Melbourne Park in a wheelchair, and she will be sidelined at least two months after tearing a ligament in her ankle.

Her fellow Belgian, Henin-Hardenne, extended her Australian Open winning streak to 13 matches by ousting 2004 Wimbledon winner Maria Sharapova 4-6, 6-1, 6-4. Henin-Hardenne, who had missed two months beginning late last year with hamstring problems, will be seeking a fifth major title.

Sharapova, who had missed two months with an injured shoulder, said she’d done better than expected and had a pointed message for critics who say she chokes in tight situations. Sharapova also lost in the semis at three majors in 2005.