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Safina, Soderling stay on track

A SLOW start couldn't stop top-ranked Dinara Safina from reaching the semifinals at the French Open.

Faced with a tough test for the first time in the tournament, Safina rallied to beat Victoria Azarenka 1-6, 6-4, 6-2 in Paris yesterday.

Safina, seeking her first grand slam title, lost only five games in the first four rounds. Against Azarenka, the Russian was repeatedly lunging for shots early but regained her dominating form at 4-4 in the second set.

Safina, the sister of two-time grand slam champion Marat Safin, was the runner-up at the 2008 French Open and this year's Australian Open. She became No. 1 for the first time on April 20 and is 19-1 this year on clay.

Safina's opponent tomorrow will be Dominika Cibulkova after the fiery Slovak ended Maria Sharapova's latest bid for her first Roland Garros title with a 6-0, 6-2 victory.

Safina's compatriot Sharapova lost the first 11 games and averted a shutout only after facing match point. She was playing in just her second tournament after a layoff of nearly 10 months because of a right shoulder injury, and the rust showed.

Sharapova had won three-setters in all four previous matches in this year's tournament.

Cibulkova, a 20-year-old seeded 20th, advanced to her first grand slam semifinal.

Robin Soderling of Sweden came up with an impressive encore to his upset of top-ranked Rafael Nadal by beating Russia's Nikolay Davydenko.

The No. 23-seeded Soderling swept the first five games and won 6-1, 6-3, 6-1.

Soderling also advanced to his first grand slam semifinal, where he'll face No. 3 Andy Murray of Britain or Chilean No. 12 Fernando Gonzalez.

On a cloudless, mild afternoon, the No. 9-seeded Azarenka played nearly flawless tennis at the outset. She hit 10 winners with one unforced error in the opening set, which took only 23 minutes.

But after Safina fell behind 0-1 in the second set she dug in, running off four consecutive games. Her groundstrokes became steadier, while mistakes crept into Azarenka's play. The Belarussian double-faulted on consecutive points and made four unforced errors to lose a service game at love.

When Azarenka sailed a return long on the final point of the second set, she angrily threw down her racket, caught it on the bounce and threw it again as the crowd hooted.

By the final changeover, a frustrated Azarenka sat with a towel draped over her face. Safina swept the last three games and the final five points.


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