Agassi Turns Back Clock at U.S. Open

Friday, September 1st 2006, 8:58 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Staring at his racket, Andre Agassi could see the end coming. So could every other person packed into Arthur Ashe Stadium.

``Yeah, we were all getting worried,'' said his brother, Phil. ``You know how they say your life flashes before your eyes before you die? There was his career, flashing before your eyes.''

Turns out, however, Agassi had another montage in mind.

Summoning all the strength and spirit that always made him such a riveting champion, Agassi somehow outlasted Marcos Baghdatis 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 5-7, 7-5 as Thursday night became Friday at a U.S. Open thriller.

``In most cases, I prefer to live without the drama,'' he kidded later. ``It just seems like it's getting better and better.''

Top-seeded Roger Federer began Friday's session in more routine fashion, punctuated by one sensational shot.

In the final set of his 6-3, 6-4, 7-5 win over Tim Henman, Federer skipped to his right, reached around his back and volleyed between his legs. He was already smiling, as was Henman, before winning the point on his next swing.

Trying for his third straight U.S. Open title, Federer was working on short rest.

``I enjoyed last night's match so much, I wouldn't mind playing five sets myself,'' he said.

In other early matches, No. 10 Fernando Gonzalez beat Jan Hajek 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 and No. 18 Robby Ginepri defeated Paul Goldstein 6-2, 6-2, 6-4. On the women's side, No. 19 Jelena Jankovic beat No. 9 Nicole Vaidisova 5-7, 6-3, 6-2.

Thursday featured blowouts on the women's side, with Maria Sharapova and former Open champions Lindsay Davenport, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Svetlana Kuznetsova all breezing. Plus, there was a notable upset: eighth-seeded Martina Hingis fell to Virginie Razzano.

Top-seeded Amelie Mauresmo and Serena Williams also advanced, all before Agassi and Baghdatis played an all-timer at Flushing Meadows.

When Agassi closed it out at 12:38 a.m. EDT, Baghdatis reached across the net and tapped him on the heart as they walked off to a roaring, standing ovation.

``I wanted to just die on the court. I wanted to do anything to win,'' Baghdatis said.

He nearly did, too, overcoming a strain and cramps in his thighs that got so bad he could barely run to return shots. Wincing, grimacing and steadying himself on the chair umpire's stand, the eighth-seeded Baghdatis still managed to play the match of his life.

But at 36, and boosted by a cortisone injection, Agassi was equal to the task. Stretching and reaching, he put on a performance for the tennis ages in his 21st straight Open _ count that one for each year of Baghdatis' life.

``I know I'm going to work hard and try, but you're not guaranteed that moment,'' Agassi said.

That said, he will now play on. Next up is a third-round match against German Benjamin Becker _ no relation to Boris _ who is ranked 112th. Beyond that, a possible match against Andy Roddick looms.

At the start, Agassi made it seem this would be easy. He won the first two sets and, after losing the third set, rushed to a 4-0 lead in the fourth set. But two games from closing it out, Agassi saw things beginning to slip away.

``It wasn't my back getting tight. It was my throat, my breathing,'' Agassi said.

In fact, it was as if Agassi was aging right in front of the 23,000-plus fans who had been shouting for him on every point.

``Andre, this is your house! And it's all of us against him!'' a fan yelled earlier in the match. Later, the stadium fell silent as Agassi struggled.

And when Agassi lost his service game to start the fifth set, the crowd fell silent. During a changeover, while Baghdatis got his thighs worked on, Agassi sat back in a chair and pawed at his racket, as if trying to coax a few more great shots from the strings.

By the time midnight struck, in the sixth game, this had become a classic, right up there with the five-setter between Agassi and James Blake last year, and rivaling Jimmy Connors' run to the 1991 Open semifinals at 39.

As it wore on, Agassi seemingly turned back the clock. Baghdatis gave it his all, too, pounding his chest after big shots and often drawing some boos.

``That's life,'' he said. ``It could be unfair, but so many things happen that are unfair in life. ... You can't cry about it.''

Baghdatis finished with 86 unforced errors, 39 more than Agassi, an eight-time major champion and one of only five men with a career Grand Slam.

Because Agassi went only 8-7 this year before the Open, he's unseeded, which is why he had to face someone ranked as highly as Baghdatis so early.

And that was OK with his brother, Phil.

``It seems to be vintage Andre,'' he said. ``It's like he's meant to play some amazing matches before the curtain goes down.''