Agassi's audacity thrills

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reports from Key Biscayne

Alistair Cooke paid a visit to the Lipton Championships on an afternoon when there was not an awful lot to write home about.

Steffi Graf made a fairly routine job of beating California's Lindsay Davenport to place herself one match away from winning the women's singles title for a record fifth time. And Pete Sampras sped closer to another showdown with Andre Agassi by defeating an American compatriot, Vince Spadea, 6-3, 6-4, to advance to the men's semi-finals.

Graf experienced less difficulty cracking Davenport's serve than in holding on to her advantage. The Wimbledon champion was broken twice in the opening set and once in the second, but still required only 66 minutes to defeat the No 8 seed, 6-4, 6-4. Her opponent in the final will be either Chanda Rubin, the American sixth seed, or the unseeded Karina Habsudova, of Slovakia.

It is a pity that the venerable Mr Cooke was not present the night before to sample the tournament's spice. Yannick Noah patented a spectacular trick shot played through the legs which has become a challenge to would- be imitators. When it comes off, spectators love it, and Agassi made their day en route to the semi-finals. Running towards the back of the court in pursuit of a lob from Michael Joyce, Agassi improvised a winner into the far corner, which astonished his American compatriot. "Never in a million years did I think he would ever come close to making it," Joyce said.

It is doubtful that Key Biscayne has heard such a roar of appreciation, and the defending champion bowed to one and all. "Shots like that make it hard to retire," Agassi said.

Not that the 25-year-old Agassi is creaking towards the rocking chair. He intends to add to the stockpile of memories, and believes that his debut at the Olympic Games in Atlanta in July will rank among the best.

Agassi defeated Joyce, 6-4, 6-1, and the cameo occurred in the third game of the second set. Asked if such wizardry was likely to break an opponent's spirit, he said: "I think it pisses them off more than anything."

Joyce, a 23-year-old Californian, ranked No 71 in the world, simply marvelled at Agassi's audacity, and it is a fair bet that the Las Vegan's semi-final opponent, Arnaud Boetsch, would do the same.

The Frenchman's approach to his quarter-final delighted the crowd, who had become impatient with Jim Courier's petulance. While Courier wasted all but four of 24 break points, and glowered at the line-judges, Boetsch took his three chances and enjoyed himself.

Boetsch, the No 15 seed, has met Agassi once before, losing, in the third round of the 1990 French Open. The American lost to Andres Gomez in the final.

Results, Sporting Digest, page 31