Thursday, August 31, 2006

Agassi Outlasts Baghdatis In Five Set Classic, Career Survives One More Night

We've seen this movie script before. Maybe that's how Andre Agassi likes it. After coming back to beat Andrei Pavel in a four set three and a half hour epic Monday, the two-time 36 year-old U.S. Open champion upset eighth seeded Marcos Baghdatis in an even better five set encore 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 5-7, 7-5 before over 23,000 screaming fans at Ashe Stadium Thursday night. The retiring Agassi lived for another night.

In an unpredictable match which also lasted three hours and forty eight minutes, Agassi prevailed over the 21 year-old Baghdatis, who was a runner-up at the Australian Open and a semifinalist at Wimbledon earlier this year.

A couple of days after receiving a cortisone shot just so he could walk out onto the court without limping, Agassi continued to defy logic by playing the electric brand of tennis that's made him such a fan favorite.

Slugging it out from the baseline with his opponent who was 15 years younger, the eight-time slam winner got the better of the points early on. After each player held serve for three all in the first set, it was Agassi that got the first break of the match in the seventh game. He was able to hold twice more and took the set when Baghdatis netted a shot leaving the 21-year Open veteran to pump his fist.

The second set was virtually identical. Both players once again held for three apiece but when Baghdatis served for 4-3, a funny thing happened as Agassi once again pounced to break the Cypriot. After each player held for 5-4, he served out the set to own the first two.

But Baghdatis wasn't ready to go home early. Instead, he fought back hard in the third set to reclaim the momentum. When an Agassi backhand missed just wide, he finally had broken. Serving for it at 5-3 would prove to be tougher than it looked. After he setup three set points, Agassi saved each to force a Deuce before Baghdatis served one of his 23 aces to reach his fourth set point. When another Agassi groundstroke narrowly missed, the Cypriot emphatically shouted and pumped his fist to his corner. He finally had life.

But if he thought he had the momentum, Agassi quickly erased it with consecutive breaks to jump out to a two break 4-0 lead. Ironically, in his first round win over Pavel, Agassi fought back from the same deficit to comeback and take a crucial third set tiebreak. This time, Baghdatis turned the tables on his older foe and mounted one of the best comebacks by breaking him three times in four service games to miraculously fight back and square the match at two sets apiece.

Playing more aggressively and mixing an array of drop shots with depth groundstrokes, the Cypriot took four straight games before Agassi held for 5-4. After leveling it at five, he connected with a backhand winner smack on the line to suddenly surge ahead 6-5. When he served out the set, the fiery Baghdatis pointed to his heart and looked at his corner.

At the beginning of the final set, the Ashe Stadium crowd which earlier did the wave in the second set during a Baghdatis service game which drew a smile this time went into a "Let's Go Andre" chant.

But when their hero dropped serve in the opening game of the fifth set and slowly walked to his chair, it looked like it very well could be the final chapter of his storybook career.

"Would I have been disappointed if I had lost? Sure," Agassi admitted later to the AP. "But at the same time, how can you be disappointed when it's all sort of surreal?"

However, in a set which had more twists and turns in it than a rollercoaster, Baghdatis who earlier had injured his wrist began to cramp and needed to be treated by a trainer before the second game. A few minutes after they returned on court, Agassi immediately broke his cramping opponent to get back on serve. When Baghdatis lunged for a half volley and netted it, it was one all and the popular American pumped his fist and looked at his box.

Even with both players looking weary, each courageously held serve until a wild ninth game which featured eight deuces, four break points and an even more hurting Baghdatis. With the match even two sets and four all, the tiring Cypriot suddenly pulled up during a point. Already treated for a cramp earlier in the set, he couldn't be seen until the remarkable game concluded.

Continuing to stretch it out before returning serve, he showed tremendous heart by setting up a couple of break points with clean return winners. But everytime it looked like the injured player would somehow break to get within a game of serving it out, Agassi did just enough to save all four break chances and finally escaped the lengthy game when Baghdatis committed one of his 86 unforced errors. By comparison, Agassi made just 47 for the entire match. While he made a ton more errors, Baghdatis also finished with 49 more winners than Agassi- 83-34.

Still in pain, somehow with his back to the wall, Baghdatis managed to hold for five all and stay alive. When he hit a clean forehand winner during an extended point on the full run, he screamed in delight much to the pro-Agassi crowd's dismay as some even booed the player who wouldn't give up.

"I just wanted to fight," Baghdatis told USA Network's John McEnroe in a postmatch interview afterwards. "I wanted to stay on the court. I'll do anything to win."

After Agassi held in more conventional fashion for 6-5, he finally reached match point on Baghdatis' serve. When Baghdatis sent a backhand five feet long, the hard fought victory was finally his in what had become another memorable match they won't soon forget at Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

Just as Agassi and James Blake had done after a similar five set epic last year, the two competitors warmly embraced at the net before a thunderous ovation.

But just as he had done last year, it was the elder Agassi who had won the battle of attrition and took in another fitting tribute from over 23,000 still standing and cheering at almost 1 AM.

"Tonight has been another example of moments you're not guaranteed," he appropriately admitted to McEnroe after Baghdatis had earlier wished him luck the rest of the way.

How right he was. For one more day, he had survived once more. Now he'll next "face a B. Becker from Germany," McEnroe jokingly remarked in the third round with a possible Round of 16 showdown with just turned 24 year-old American Andy Roddick awaiting. No. Not that Becker. It's qualifier Benjamin Becker who yesterday advanced by knocking out Sebastien Grosjean (30) in straight sets 7-6 (3), 6-1, 6-2.

For one more day at least, Agassi has another match Saturday night. Will it continue to produce a similar result? Just wait and see.

While the latest Agassi triumph highlighted Day Four on the men's side, second seeded Rafael Nadal also advanced in four sets over Luis Horna 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2.

Other seeded winners included Tommy Robredo (6), David Ferrer (11), Lleyton Hewitt (15), Novak Djokovic (20), Fernando Verdasco (22) and Richard Gasquet (25).

Meanwhile, 27th seeded Frenchman Gael Monfils fell in four sets to Wesley Moodie 6-4, 2-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4).

Hingis Upset: On the women's side, former 1997 Open champ Martin Hingis' return to New York wasn't pleasant.

Making her first appearance in four years and a day removed from a tough three set opening round win over Peng Shuai, Hingis struggled to find the range in a straight sets loss to Virginie Razzano 6-2, 6-4 to sustain her quickest Open exit ever.

Unable to hold serve and outslugged from the baseline, Hingis never was able to recover from a tough first set which saw her hold serve just once. When Razzano jumped out to a doublebreak 4-0 second set lead, the writing was on the wall. Though Hingis fought back to pull within 4-5, Razzano served it out the second time to eliminate the popular former Swiss world No. 1.

"I think after yesterday I didn't have much more to give," Hingis admitted. "Yesterday, I was able to dig in deep, and today, you know, [Razzano] had a better answer.

"I mean, we have to say definitely she played a great match. She was very solid from both sides. There wasn't much I could do sometimes."

While it wasn't a good day for Hingis, 2005 runner-up Mary Pierce (13) moved into Round 3 with a 6-3, 6-4 win over Eva Birnerova.

Also advancing to a third round showdown with unseeded American Serena Williams was 16th seeded Ana Ivanovic. Ironically, the Serbian fought back similarly to how Williams did against Daniela Hantuchova and posted an identical 7-5, 6-3 comeback victory over Aiko Nakamura. Like Williams, Ivanovic crawled out of a break hole in which her opponent served for the first set before taking control. It should setup an intriguing third round match in two days.

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