reports from New York
Andre Agassi describes the pressure of defending the United States Open title as the world No 1 compared to winning it unseeded a year ago as "stepping on land mines". So far he has stumbled on a couple and survived to meet Boris Becker in the semi-finals tomorrow.
A repeat of Wimbledon in July? Agassi trusts not, having been blown up by Becker just when he seemed to have one foot in the final.
At the All England Club, it will be remembered, Becker scraped through a quarter-final against the Frenchman Cedric Pioline, 9-7 in the fifth set, and then defeated Agassi, 2-6, 7-6, 6-4, 7-6. Here, in common with Agassi, the German fourth seed had to haul himself into the last four.
Both players have time to recover from worrying experiences, Agassi against the talented but whimsical Czech, Petr Korda, Becker in fending off a fiery Patrick McEnroe.
Agassi, who had a bad night in the second round, when he was fortunate to overcome the cramping Alex Corretja in five sets, appeared to be cruising against Korda, two sets up. The American's main concern had been to make his way to the court: some 8,000 spectators who had remained for the finish of the Becker match in a protracted daytime session were faced with nearly 20,000 waiting to get in for the night show.
Security men sorted out that little problem for Agassi, but he was on his own when Korda suddenly began to crowd him. The light-hearted approach disappeared. There was no more joking with spectators or draping towels over television cameras. The confident glances towards Brad Gilbert, his coach, and Brooke Shields, his girlfriend, became frowns.
Shaken by Korda's revival, Agassi seemed to let the third set slip away, 1-6 in 28 minutes. If he imagined this would enable him to restore order as the fourth got under way, he was mistaken. Korda broke serve twice before Agassi could respond, and the American had to save two set points at 5-4, 40-15. The American avoided a fifth set, winning 6-4, 6-2, 1- 6, 7-5.
John McEnroe refers to his younger brother as "the white sheep of the family, the good guy". Patrick put the image on hold during the Becker match. He received a warning from the British umpire Mike Morrissey after tossing a ball at a lineswoman and was fortunate to escape further punishment for throwing his racket on several occasions and constantly arguing.
The frustration of failing to secure two set points in the second set was compounded when a duel of tie-breaks drifted away from him after more than four hours, but McEnroe did not blame the line calls for Becker's winning a memorable contest, 6-4, 7-6, 6-7, 7-6. The German, whose 30 aces helped salvage 70 errors, reckoned it to be among the top five matches ever played at the championships. "The fourth set was as tough a set as you can get," he said.
Tomorrow's semi-final has an extra edge, Agassi having taken exception to Becker's remarks after Wimbledon to the effect that the American received special treatment because of the power of his clothing sponsors.
"If he felt that I said something bad about him, then that was not the thing I wanted to bring out," Becker said. "It was never against him personally. I have never had a bad time with him personally. It was about his company. I still think I have a point.''
Asked why he thought Agassi had faltered in their semi-final after dictating play for a set and a half, Becker said: "You have to ask Andre that. I just tried my heart out out there. I am the type of player who never gives up, who always sees at least a small chance to win. That has given me many victories in my career. I know that I have to play my best tennis to have a chance against Andre on Saturday, especially on a hard court. I hope I am again part of a great match for tennis.''
Agassi defeated Becker in the 1990 semi-finals here, and is determined to offer the German as little encouragement as possible. "It doesn't matter who you are playing, you don't want to let anybody back in the match," he said. "The difference is that if you let a guy like Becker back in the match, he is experienced - he knows how to win. He is going to take the gift and say thank you.''
The other semi-final will be an all-American affair between Pete Sampras, the Wimbledon champion, and either Michael Chang or Jim Courier. Sampras, the second seed, recovered after being broken when serving for the first set at 5-3, hitting 22 aces in defeating the unseeded Byron Black, from Zimbabwe, 7-6, 6-4, 6-0.
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