Agassi vows to keep on fighting

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Among the unforced errors at the United States Open was an item in the media notes stating that Elie Nastase, the former world No 1 from Romania, congratulated countrywoman Irina Spirlea after her victory over Monica Seles.

Perhaps this confusion was rooted in Ilie Nastase's Some Like it Hot cabaret routine with his former doubles partner, Ion Tiriac, in Monte Carlo. Whatever, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep pace with the changing faces and identities in the sport these days.

The Americans in particular have reason to be perplexed in a week which has seen Pete Sampras lose his singles title, Andre Agassi fall short of filling the vacancy, and Michael Chang teeter close to leaving the nation without a man in the last eight for the first time in the open era.

Agassi's quest ended in the Arthur Ashe Stadium in the fourth round on Tuesday night. The Las Vegan found Australia's Pat Rafter too difficult to catch after losing the opening sets, having failed to convert either of two set points in the second set.

A spirited recovery from 1-4 to win the third set encouraged the crowd, and his opponent, to start bracing themselves for a marathon. But Rafter's stamina, attacking flair, smartly angled shots and general superiority on the night and prevailed, 6-3, 7-6, 4-6, 6-3.

Rafter, the No 13 seed, now plays the unseeded Magnus Larsson, of Sweden, in the semi-finals. Agassi's next appearance in a tournament is open to speculation, although he insists he will return.

"I don't know what is on the agenda," he said, "but be assured that it will be in the best interest of my game plan to come back and play well next year. I am out there on the court again, making improvements, feeling good, enjoying myself and getting better."

Well aware that his ranking is bound to slip from an already dodgy No 63, Agassi shrugged off the idea that numbers would deter him. "It is clear that when my game is together I am not worried about much except the person I am playing against," he said. "ATP ranking is not something that I think much about, never have."

Some consolation for the Amercians has been derived from the emergence on the women's side of Venus Williams. The 17-year-old Californian's recent endeavours to add a degree of strategy to her athleticism and shot-making has taken her to the singles semi-finals on her debut.

The American Pam Shriver, in 1978, was the last debutante to appear in the last four, advancing to the final, where she was defeated by Chris Evert. Shriver was the No 16 seed. Williams, ranked No 66, is the first unseeded semi-finalist since Mima Jausovec, of the former Yugoslavia, in 1976.

"It used to be that the other person forced the mistake," Williams said after her quarter-final victory against Sandrine Testud, of France. "I was not quite able to understand that I didn't have to go for winners, or I didn't have to always just expect to his a winner.

"Fortunately, I was able to understand this, and in a small amount of time. It takes a lot of players years, and it could have been four years later, when I was 21. I would still be pretty young, but it is a long time in tennis."

Williams credited her younger sister, Serena, with persuading her to vary her game for her third-round match against Germany's Anke Huber, the No 8 seed. "I never before took too much pace off the ball," Venus said. "I think I just started doing it in practice automatically, mostly because Serena does it quite a lot.

"Serena will take the pace off the ball, and place it. I was not good at that. I kind of looked at her and learned it. It took me a while, because she just takes advantage of me taking the pace off the ball. It just clicked. Some things happen like that."

After defeating Testud, 7-5, 7-5, Williams hauled herself far enough up the perimeter wall to kiss her mother, Oracene, and then collected the beads which had fallen from her braided hair during the course of play and distributed them among spectators.

"My goal coming in [to the tournament] was not to lose one bead during a match, so I definitely didn't meet my goal," she joked. "I'm kind of upset about that. I am going to work harder in the next tournament." Beads of inspiration, beads of perspiration.

Spirlea, the No 11 seed, now stands between Williams and a place in the final. Maybe Elie Nastase will make another cheer-leading appearance.

Results, Digest, Page 27