Tennis: Agassi revels in carnival atmosphere

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The Independent Online
There were upsets and marathon matches en route to the quarter-finals of the Australian Open here yesterday, but the abiding memory is of 15,000 spectators transforming a tennis event into a carnival. Since Sunday morning, the sporting population had been hyped for a so-called "dream match" between Andre Agassi and their own Patrick Rafter. The reality was a straight-sets win for the No 2 seed from Las Vegas which would have been considered routine but for the atmosphere.

While Rafter was being brought down to earth, 6-3, 6-4, 6-0, the crowd remained in a state of euphoria, admiring Agassi's craftsmanship and concentration and the Queenslander's fortitude under fire, or simply enjoying the night out.

The tone of a pop concert was set even before a ball was struck ("Rafter My Sex God" was the message on one T-shirt), and though the habit of calling out when a player was about to serve was irritating, the sight of so many enthralled young people gladdened the eyes of the sport's administrators.

"That's what we live for, that kind of atmosphere," Rafter said. "It was fantastic." Agassi agreed. "The only thing I've experienced that tops this is at a few Davis Cup matches, and also Jimmy Connors at the US Open."

Having become almost as adept as old "Jimbo" at working a crowd, Agassi realised that this was an occasion to keep his mind on business. "I was just trying to keep myself as focused and disciplined as possible, not to let anything rattle me mentally or emotionally," Agassi said.

Completing the job in 86 minutes, he made only three unforced errors, did not give Rafter the sniff of a break point in conceding only 14 points on serve, and killed him with his returns.

"He really shows up a lot of weaknesses and just makes you look very silly out there at stages," the Australian said.

Prior to the "dream match" there were some nightmares. Stefan Edberg, the No 6 seed, lost a two-sets lead and was eliminated by Aaron Krickstein. And Todd Martin, the runner-up to Pete Sampras last year, was dispatched in straight sets by the Russian, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who now plays Agassi.

Jana Novotna, projected to meet Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the women's semi-finals, self-destructed again. Consecutive double-faults in the concluding game encapsulated the third seed's performance in losing, 7-5, 6-0, to Angelica Gavaldon, of California, a quarter-finalist five years ago, ranked No 96.

Gavaldon's win guarantees an unseeded competitor in the last four. She plays the American Marianne Werdel Witmeyer, who continued to capitalise on her first-round win against Gabriela Sabatini by defeating Barbara Paulus, of Austria, 6-2, 6-3.

Sanchez Vicario came close to dropping her first set of the tournament before lifting her game to beat Karina Hapsudova, a former world junior champion from Slovakia, 7-5, 6-0. The Spaniard will need to raise her game against the unseeded Naoko Sawamatsu, of Japan, who defeated the American No 11 seed, Mary Joe Fernandez, 6-4, 7-6.

The duel between Edberg and Krickstein in the heat of the afternoon was so tense and lengthy that the players lingered in their seats, like weary prize fighters choosing to ignore the bell for the final round.

The umpire, Britain's Mike Morrissey, prompted them with a time violation - Edberg reprimanded sensation! - and the unseeded Krickstein completed a stirring victory, 6-7, 5-7, 6-4, 7-6, 6-4, after three hours and 43 minutes.

We ought to have been prepared for such an eventuality, knowing that the American is the sport's great escapologist. It was the ninth time he had fought back to win after losing the opening two sets.

What we did not realise was that Kricktein was playing with "magic" rackets, last used when he defeated Edberg in Tokyo in 1989. Since then he had lost seven consecutive matches to the Swede.

Krickstein, a hoarder of rackets, decided to bring the antiques to Australia to see if they would help him play as well as he did six years ago. It may seem like a load of old Yonex, but it has worked for him so far.

Edberg, two points from winning in the fourth set, was furious about a line call that denied him a match point. "The guy [on the line] is sitting in sunglasses, and the umpire is too afraid to overrule," he said.

The men's singles will also have an unseeded semi-finalist. Krickstein's quarter-final oppponent is the Dutchman, Jacco Eltingh, who ended Patrick McEnroe's comeback from two sets down, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 5-7, 6-4, after three hours and 37 minutes.

Kafelnikov required only 96 minutes to dismantle the hapless Martin, 6-1, 6-4, 6-2. The Russian, it may be remembered, came to prominence at Flinders Park last year, building on a tournament success in Adelaide and coming within two points of defeating Pete Sampras in the second round.

"From that match I got the biggest confidence for last year," he said, "and making the quarter-finals makes me confident for 1995."

He acknowledged, however, that yesterday's opponent "for sure wasn't the Todd Martin like he was last year here." Nor was he the Martin who had advanced through the three previous rounds without dropping a set.

"I knew if I played a solid game from the baseline, and kept him moving from corner to corner, I had a big chance," Kafelnikov said.

Martin lost the opening set in only 23 minutes and then squandered a 2-0 lead in the second set, double-faulting and making three forehand errors to lose the advantage. The forehand was the most culpable part of his game, which suffered a general breakdown, as 50 unforced errors indicate.

"Every time I played a few good points in a row, he came up with some good points, or I shot myself in the foot," the American said.

Kafelnikov none the less fretted that if his serve is not sharper tomorrow, "Agassi is going to do beefsteak for me". Rafter would confirm that the Las Vegan's returns can make mincemeat of opponents.

Results, Sporting Digest, page 31