Tennis: Agassi hurtles along baseline of history

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The Independent Online
YOU HAVE to wonder what propels Andre Agassi at the end of an exhausting year. He is already confirmed as 1999's world No 1, has won two Grand Slams and his latest love, Steffi Graf, was chafing at courtside, indisputably keener to be at a candlelit supper than watching the sport on which she has just turned her back.

Yet Agassi ground out a marvellous, fighting victory in the semi-finals of the Paris Open at the Palais Omnisport in Bercy yesterday, defeating Nicolas Lapentti 3-6 6-3 6-2 after the wonder boy from Ecuador seemed to have his distinguished opponent on the run.

There were mutterings from some parts of a stadium packed with 15,000 people - even though France were in the televised world final of another sport - that Agassi might have lost interest in further progress when he led 3-1 in the first set, only to drop the next five games.

Yet he gradually got the measure of someone who closely resembles Pete Sampras in build and attitude, and finished a worthy winner. An exhausting three-set quarter-final late on Friday evening exacted its toll on Lapentti eventually. From the middle of the second set the spring was sapped from his legs and the sting drained from his whipped groundstrokes. Agassi spotted his chance and seized it to win a contest of the highest quality, conducted almost exclusively from the baseline and featuring rallies extending to as many as 31 shots.

Agassi stands on the brink of another milestone in already the finest year of his career. Victory in today's final would make the Las Vegan the first man ever to win the French Open and the Paris Open in the same year. "If anybody had told me at the start of the year what sort of a year it would turn out for me, I would have assumed the guy was wacko," he said. "This is a heavy accomplishment."

Perhaps, despite that, Agassi's mind went back to the 1990 French Open final. The heavy favourite to beat Andres Gomez, he lost. To a man from Ecuador. There aren't many of them, unfortunately for Ecuador.

As Lapentti said: "Apart from me, Gomez and Pancho Segura, there haven't been any tennis players. We don't have many athletes, like other countries. But tennis is growing. Soccer is the top sport but never gives Ecuador anything, so it is time to pay attention to other sports."

The 23-year-old has certainly attracted attention on his swing through the European indoor tournaments. He arrived at the Grand Slam Cup in Munich in September never having won indoors in nine attempts but he has improved so fast that he is guaranteed a top-10 place in the rankings released tomorrow.

Some of his shots were of breathtaking quality, stretching Agassi to the limit of his vast talents. The match looked a formality as Agassi broke serve in the opening game to go 3-1 ahead, at which point Lapentti uncorked an eye-opening streak of five successive games, snatching the first set in 33 minutes.

It took Agassi quite a while in the second set to get the match on a level keel. Although he was serving so well that he conceded only three points on it, he could not rein in his opponent's.

The crucial break came in the eighth game as Lapentti began to labour in pursuit of the ball. Two backhand errors and a mishit forehand gave Agassi the opening and he seized it with a definitive smash and served out to love to level at one set all.

Agassi was in full, irresistible flow. At every change-over he sprinted to his seat exuding confidence and bounce, and the match slid away from Lapentti inexorably. Three breaks of serve put Agassi 5-0 up and serving for a place in the final, but then came an unexpected hiccup. He missed two match points in that game, one on a double fault, and two more in the next, one a Lapentti ace.

Offered match point number five, courtesy of a mishit forehand that flew high out of court, Agassi struck a smash to end on a suitably thunderous note.

"My legs in the third set were not as quick as in the first two sets," said Lapentti. In the end that was the crucial difference. As Agassi explained: "He has to work pretty hard to win because he counts on his wheels a lot."

In the final Agassi will face the Russian 19-year-old, Marat Safin, who defeated Michael Chang 6-7 7-6 6-3. Safin's power on the serve ended Chang's hopes of halting the miserable run which saw the 1989 French Open champion sink to 72nd in the rankings and face the humiliation of having to qualify for this event.