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He's now the 1 to beat

Safin up next for top-rate Federer

MELBOURNE -- Roger Federer picks his spots to celebrate, and surely this was one of them.

The Wimbledon champion fell to his knees and raised his arms after overwhelming an aching Juan Carlos Ferrero yesterday to reach the Australian Open final and gain the No. 1 ranking.

"Relief for me was Wimbledon," Federer said. "No. 1, obviously it's something I've been close to the last few months. But I could never take my chance. To now make it: I love it!"

Federer won his semifinal, 6-4, 6-1, 6-4, for a spot in the title match against Marat Safin (tonight, 10 EST). Safin has surged from deep in the rankings to beat Andy Roddick and defending champion Andre Agassi in his last two matches.

Federer is the 23d man to hold the No. 1 spot since the ATP's computer rankings were introduced in 1973. The Swiss star missed a chance at the top spot in August when he lost a semifinal to Roddick in Montreal.

Federer said he was "shaking all over" then. This time he was far more composed.

The No. 1 ranking was at stake after Roddick lost in the quarterfinals. Federer, seeded second, needed all of 89 minutes to dismiss the third-seeded Ferrero.

Federer was methodical and relentless, and he will need to be so again against Safin, who is playing as he did in 2000 when he won the US Open and reached No. 1.

Federer looks forward to facing the Russian, who mutters to himself and belts balls from the arena to let off steam. "He's one of my favorite guys to play against, not because of the results, but the human side," Federer said. "The whole tennis world is happy he's in the final."

Federer has dropped only two sets in six matches. Safin has spent about 19 hours on court and gone to five sets three times, including once against Agassi Thursday. The 129 games that Safin has lost are the most by any man in a Grand Slam tournament final since the Open Era began in 1968.

Federer said he knew Safin had the game to win a big tournament. But he was surprised the Russian was in a final so soon after last season's wrist problems.

"It's good to see him back," he said. "We're all happy, but we're scared at the same time."

Safin is here for one reason.

"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."

Ferrero, the French Open champion, said he was hobbled by a groin strain.

"It was a disaster," the Spaniard said.

Ferrero held the No. 1 ranking for eight weeks last season. He will move up one place to No. 2, while Roddick slips from No. 1 to No. 3. Agassi will drop one place to No. 5, behind Guillermo Coria. Safin can move into the top 20 from No. 86 by winning the final. The first major championship of 2004 was decided yesterday when top-seeded Virginia Ruano Pascual and Paola Suarez won their fifth Grand Slam women's doubles title together. They beat Russians Svetlana Kuznetsova and Elena Likhovtseva, 6-4, 6-3. Martina Navratilova, 47, took another step toward her 10th Grand Slam mixed doubles title. She and India's Leander Paes, the defending champions, beat Jonathan Erlich of Israel and Liezel Huber of South Africa, 6-4, 6-4, in the semis. After the match, Navratilova insisted this will be her final year on the WTA Tour. Material from Bloomberg News was used in this report.

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