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Federer, Agassi cruise into semifinal showdown

World number one tennis-player Roger Federer, seeking his first Miami Masters Series crown, cruised into a semifinal showdown with Andre Agassi, the man who has captured six titles at Key Biscayne, both advancing with straight-set victories on Thursday.

Switzerland’s Federer dispatched sixth-seeded Briton Tim Henman 6-4, 6-2. Agassi, seeded ninth, downed fellow American Taylor Dent 7-5, 6-0.

Henman, one of the few players still boasting a winning record against Federer, couldn’t improve on that on Thursday.

He said he didn’t play badly, but against Federer these days, that’s just not enough.

”It was okay, but I think you’re only allowed to play to a certain level because of the standard that he’s playing so consistently,” Henman said. ”I felt pretty comfortable, but it only takes your level to drop for a point or two points, and that can be a break of serve. He just keeps rolling from there.” Federer improved his 2005 record to 30-1, the best start to a season since Ivan Lendl started 30-1 in 1986.

”I am surprised to have, again, such a great start to the season after last year’s season where I really thought, ‘How in the world will I defend all those titles, and how will I maintain this level?”’ said Federer, whose lone loss this year came to eventual champion Marat Safin in the semifinals at the Australian Open.

”Because people expect so much. You have to feel well almost on every day, you know, to come through, because everybody wants to beat you out there,” he said.

Agassi (34) may not face such high expectations every time he turns out. But the eight-time Grand Slam champion’s history in 18 previous appearances in this event makes him a formidable opponent for anyone in Miami.

Against Dent, Agassi broke to lead 5-4 in the first set, but then squandered two set points on his own serve as Dent levelled the set at 5-5.

But Agassi broke back and held to earn the set, then immediately gained the upper hand in the second set with a break in the opening game.

Dent, looking increasingly frustrated, had his ankle taped while trailing 4-0 but still couldn’t eke out a game as Agassi booked his semi-final berth in 70 minutes.

On the women’s side, Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova advanced to the final with a 6-4, 6-3 victory over American Venus Williams.

Sharapova, the second seed, was in command throughout. She won the opening set with a service break in the final game, and then went up a break in the second game of the second set.

Trailing 5-2, Williams managed to fight off one match point against her serve with an ace, and went on to hold serve and keep the match alive.

In the ninth game, Williams showed her determination as she mustered her first break points of the match. But she failed to convert all six of them.

”It was the best game in the match,” Sharapova (17) said of that final game. ”Being 0-40 down is not the best situation you can be at when you’re up 5-3 serving for it. I was very proud of myself for being able to win that game. It was a tough one.”

Williams, who defeated her sister Serena, the three-time defending champion, in a scintillating quarterfinal on Tuesday, said she felt flat from the beginning.

”The first problem for me was just I was so tired,” she said. ”I don’t know why. I’m not usually tired. I think sometimes I went for a shot too quickly because my energy level was low. I had some bad shot selections.”

Sharapova’s victory means that for the first time since 2000 — when Martina Hingis won — a Williams won’t be holding up the women’s trophy.

Venus Williams won the last of her three Key Biscayne titles in 2001, and Serena launched her run of three straight triumphs the following year.

Sharapova next awaited the winner of the second semifinal, in which top-seeded Amelie Mauresmo of France faced a dangerous encounter with unseeded Belgian Kim Clijsters.

Clijsters, a former world number one whose ranking plunged as she was sidelined for much of 2004 by a wrist injury, has belied her unseeded status for the second tournament in a row.

She won the title at Indian Wells, California, two weeks ago, beating world number one Lindsay Davenport in the final.

And her victims here have included 12th seeded Nathalie Dechy of France, fifth-seeded French Open champion Anastasia Myskina of Russia and fourth-seeded Russian Elena Dementieva.

Clijsters is 14-1 this year and has won her last six matches against Mauresmo, the most recent a straight-set victory in the final of the 2003 WTA Tour Championships. — Sapa-AFP

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