Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Agassi And Blake Put On Show

In one of the most anticipated U.S. Open matches in years, Andre Agassi gutted out a dramatic comeback quarterfinal victory over Yonkers native James Blake 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (6). The five set epic is sure to be replayed because of the tremendous heart, guts and athleticism both fan favorites exhibited. In one word for a match that lived up to its hype, riveting.

After both players came out jittery, the younger Blake started to impose his will on Agassi from the baseline. Pounding wicked forehands and backhands, he took control of the opening set when he combined a couple of deadly winners and drew errors from Agassi to break him at love to take a 4-3 lead. After holding serve Blake broke again to close the set.

After Agassi broke Blake for the first time in the match to begin the second set, the quicker 25-year-old who recently won his second career title at New Haven took charge from the baseline, running Agassi rampant to get back on serve. At one point, Blake's return of serve was so effective that he broke the eight-time slam winner four straight times spanning the end of the first and second sets.

On fire, Blake pounded many of his 60 winners to keep Agassi off balance. When he wasn't cracking them, he was tracking down so many Agassi shots that it forced his opponent to go for too much, resulting in 57 unforced errors. With Agassi off his game, Blake closed the set to take a commanding two set lead.

Never before had Agassi ever comeback from two sets down in his 20-year U.S. Open career. When Blake broke and went up 3-1 in the third set, there was little reason to think Agassi could pull it off.

But a determined Agassi never gave up hope. With Blake possibly getting nervous trying to go up 4-2, Agassi raised his level, turning the tables on Blake. He started hitting the ball cleaner and began getting errors from Blake. Suddenly with momentum, Agassi took the final four games of the set to get back in the match.

Clearly playing better, Agassi continued to attack a suddenly weary Blake in the fourth set, breaking him twice to level the match, giving everybody at a soldout Arthur Ashe Stadium what they came for.

Two fan favorites. One, an adopted son from Las Vegas who's been playing there since he was a 16-year-old teenager in 1986; recently declaring how much he loves New York. The other, a local product from the Harlem Junior Tennis League and nearby Connecticut, who was the best story coming into the match; having comeback from a broken neck in a warm-up for the Italian Open, lost his father Thomas to cancer two months later and was partially paralyzed from an illness that made it uncertain if he'd ever pick up a tennis racket again.

Fast forward a year later, here was Blake trying to become the first wild card to reach the Open semifinals since 39-year-old legend Jimmy Connors' magical run in '91. And he would have to beat a close friend who he looked up to as a kid to get there.

Nobody could script what would happen next. Not even Hollywood. With Blake desperate to win his first ever five-setter in his sixth attempt and Agassi equally as locked in on trying to advance one step closer to his ultimate goal of a third Open title (ninth slam), both players left their best out there in a grueling and thrilling 43-minute final set.

When Blake crushed a couple of forehand winners and pressured Agassi in the fifth game, he had his seventh break of the match in 17 chances. Agassi never got down though and kept going after Blake's serve. Blake fought his way out of a Love-30 hole to get to 5-3, within one game of a Super Saturday showdown with American Robby Ginepri, who Wednesday afternoon bested Guillermo Coria for his third straight five set win.

After Agassi held for 4-5, the crowd was on their feet because they knew what was coming. One last all out press by Agassi to get back on serve. With Blake three points from the match, Agassi stepped up his returns going for broke. It produced one of 56 winners and forced two of Blake's 46 unforced errors. When Agassi ran around a backhand for a huge forehand on a Blake second serve at 15-40, Blake went for too much and missed a forehand winner up the line to level the remarkable match at five. Agassi not only was tied with Blake on the scoreboard but in the number of breaks converted (7 of 13).

With Blake trying to break back, Agassi turned it up to hold putting the onus on Blake to push it to a frantic tiebreaker. After Blake led 40-0, Agassi wouldn't concede the game, getting the next two points on a forehand crosscourt winner and a perfect forehand topspin lob. With the Blake contingent antsy, he calmed them down with his 19th ace out wide to give the match the fitting conclusion it deserved.

The tiebreak would be even more unbelievable theatre for everyone that watched. With Blake up a minibreak leading 3-0, it looked like Agassi's last gasp would fall short. But digging deep, he won the next three points giving the crowd even more reason to gasp. After he missed a forehand down the line to give Agassi match point at 6-5, Blake made no mistake the second time slugging a forehand winner down the line to send the crowd into a frenzy. Afterwards, Blake looked up to his corner and maybe to the heavens talking to his Dad. What would happen next was even more incredible.

Needing to hold serve or put the match on Blake's racket, in an extended rally, Agassi went to his bag of tricks hitting a backhand drop shot. When the hustling Blake got to it and hit it into Agassi, somehow, he managed to hit a clean backhand winner for his second match point. With fans still standing and cheering as Blake stepped up for a second serve, Agassi ended the match the only way it could end. With a go for broke forehand winner down the line. He became the oldest player to advance to the Open semis since Connors 14 years ago.

To give an idea of how close the two hour 51-minute match was, Agassi won six more points- Agassi-162 Blake-156.

As the two embraced at the net, it still seemed surreal. A match that everyone talked about lived up to its billing and had it all. Grit. Guts. Hustle. Determination. Sportsmanship.

"At 1:15 in the morning for 20,000 people to still be here, I wasn't the winner, tennis was," said Agassi in the post match interview.

"It couldn't have been more fun to lose,'' Blake told CBS reporter Tracy Wolfson afterwards. Though Blake had lost, there were no losers on this night. Just two classy American tennis players putting on a show that no one who witnessed it will ever forget.


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