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Agassi reaches finals for second week in a row

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) _ For the second week in a row, Andre Agassi advanced to the final of an ATP event.

Agassi, the No. 1 seed, defeated seventh-seeded Xavier Malisse 6-4, 6-4 in the semifinals of the Franklin Templeton Tennis Classic on Saturday.

He will face Juan Balcells, who completed his surprising march through the bracket with a 6-3, 6-1 semifinal rout of Rainer Schuetter on Saturday night in a match that took just 52 minutes.

Balcells, whose lone victory and only other final appearance on the ATP Tour came two years ago in Bucharest, Romania, has never played Agassi.

``I've been watching matches of Andre since I was 15,'' the 26-year-old Spaniard said. ``Now tomorrow I'm going to play against him and that's going to be like a dream come true. I mean, he's like an idol to me.''

After skipping the Australian Open because of an injured right wrist, Agassi has come on strong. He thinks his mixture of experience and skill could bring on a big season.

``I consider myself to be in a real rare situation here where I feel healthy, I feel strong, I'm moving well and I can bring my experience to the court,'' he said. ``It's a hard package to play against.''

If he wins Sunday, the 31-year-old Agassi will become the eighth player to have 50 tournament championships in the open era, which began in 1968.

Agassi called 50 ``a nice, round, even number,'' but said it would not add to his motivation to win Sunday.

``As I approach this year, I believe tomorrow is a big step for me,'' he said. ``It's another big match situation where I have a chance to execute my game and take myself to the next level for the bigger ones.''

Agassi lost an excruciatingly close match to No. 1-ranked Lleyton Hewitt in the final of last week's Seibel Open in San Jose, Calif. He will be appearing in his 75th career final.

Three of Agassi's victories have come in Scottsdale _ in 1993, '94 and '98.

Malisse, 21, wears his long hair in a ponytail and has a bit of a temper. Agassi was asked if he saw in Malisse something of himself 10 years ago.

``I've forgotten about that part of my life,'' Agassi said. ``I don't even remember it. I probably would wear a ponytail again if I could grow it, but I don't think I could anymore.''

Malisse, who has reached four ATP finals but never won a title, made no apologies for his play.

``He was just too good,'' Malisse said. ``I had my chances. It's not like I got knocked off the court or anything. We played good tennis. He's got more experience and he plays the points better, probably. He didn't miss any important points and I did here and there.''

Each player broke serve in battling to a 4-4 deadlock in the first set, but Malisse had a double-fault on the game point to give Agassi a 5-4 lead. Agassi was down 40-30 in the next game, but pulled even with an ace, then blew a 117 mph serve of Malisse's racket to win the set.

With the second set tied 3-3, Malisse had two double faults and didn't win a point as Agassi broke serve to go up 4-3. Each player held serve from there, with Agassi winning the match game without giving up a point.

Agassi, whose wife Steffi Graf and 4-month-old son are with him, said he had to make sure he didn't try to do too much to win.

``A guy like Xavier is an incredible shot maker,'' Agassi said. ``In many cases, the better shots he hits. So you've got to really pick your spots. Today was a solid match from start to finish.''
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