Agassi hopes practice will make perfect

TENNIS: Grand Slam history made at Australian Open with first all-Ameri can men's semi-finals outside United States
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The Independent Online
It is hardly balm for those competitors with aching limbs, numbed minds and battle fatigue to learn what Andre Agassi thinks so far about his first Australian Open.

"Quite honestly," the No 2 seed said, "this has been incredible practice more than anything. To play three sets every other day is not taking a whole lot out of you, which is nice." Agassi has advanced to the semi-finals for the loss of only 36 games in 15 sets, and has spent a mere seven and a quarter hours on court - an average of 87 minutes.

The Las Vegan was quick to express admiration for Pete Sampras, the defending champion, who reached the last four by recovering from two sets down in consecutive matches, while having to contend with emotional problems concerning the health of his coach,Tim Gullikson. "It's extraordinary what Pete has managed to do,"

Agassi said.

None the less, the impression remains that Agassi appears to have been playing in a different tournament, albeit one bound to be won by an American.

In his semi-final tomorrow, Agassi meets his compatriot, Aaron Krickstein, a tennis marathon specialist who is ranked No 45, and the only unseeded player to survive to the last four.

Krickstein's 7-6, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 win against the Dutchman, Jacco Eltingh, was historic, as it guaranteed that four Americans would contest Grand Slam semi-finals for the first time outside the United States. The last time an American quartet assembled in the home of the brave was in 1979: Vitas Gerulaitis, Roscoe Tanner, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors.

Agassi said he would approach Krickstein with the same intensity as if he was playing Boris Becker, his projected seed until Patrick McEnroe intervened in the opening round.

He has won four of his seven previous matches against the 27-year-old from Michigan, most recently in straight sets in the third round at Wimbledon last year. Krickstein won in straight sets when they met in the first round of the 1991 United States Open.

"Hey, I wasn't seeded at [last year's] US Open," Agassi said, reminding us that he overcame Wayne Ferreira (No 12), Michael Chang (6), Thomas Muster (13), Todd Martin (9) and Michael Stich (4) in order to win the title. "When things are going well for you, you try not to over-intellectualise it too much." Agassi's quarter-final opponent, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the young Russian who came within two points of beating Sampras in the second round a year ago, was the first seed -he is ranked No 10 - Agassi encountered here, and was expected to provide a test.

Although Kafelnikov contrived to break serve in the second set, he quickly went the way of Agassi's previous victims, Grant Stafford, Jerome Golmard, Greg Rusedski and Patrick Rafter.

Rafter said that Agassi made him look silly, while Kafelnikov chose the word stupid. "He just shows how weak you are," the Russian said, after losing 6-2, 7-5, 6-0 in 33 minutes. "I knew that my groundstrokes were almost the same as Andre's, but it was completely the opposite. His groundstrokes were two times faster than mine. Andre is really on fire here."

At one point in the third set, after Agassi had changed pace and kidded him with a drop-shot, Kafelnikov put down his racket, waved his hands in despair, and made as if to walk off the court.

Is there a danger that it has all been too easy? "Not if I can do it for two more matches - just two more - there's no danger at all," Agassi said. "I feel pretty good. You've just got to go out there and be prepared for a fight, and I think that I am.

"It's not like this is my first Grand Slam and I don't know what it's like to be in tough four or five setters. I'm taking them any way I get them. I'm hitting the ball well, and that's important."

The latter stages of the men's singles have been staggered this year to buttress the women's event, and it was difficult to dispute the logic of this yesterday.

Although the unseeded Naoko Sawamatsu gave the favourite, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, a more difficult time than 6-1, 6-3 suggests, breaking the Spaniard twice in the second set, Angelica Gavaldon's performance in losing to the American, Marianne Werdel Witmeyer, 6-1, 6-2, was hardly a show-stopper.

A quarter-finalist here in 1990, the American-born Mexican's most telling contribution to yesterday's proceedings was a solitary forehand winner. It is hard to believe that she will leave here with the equivalent of £32,000, which is what Jim Courier received after his epic against Sampras.

n Andrei Medvedev broke his left wrist during the quarter- final match against Michael Chang, and is expected to be out of the game for a month.