Tennis: Agassi sets standard for old guard

French Open: Past glories revisited as Seles follows Graf and Sanchez-Vicario into the semi-finals
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The Independent Online
THE YOUNG and the powerful may continue to take over tennis, but the likes of Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles and Arantxa Sanchez- Vicario are determined not to go without a fight. Those were the familiar names that breathed life into the French Open yesterday.

Agassi, whose career seemed decidedly dodgy 18 months ago, when his world ranking slumped to No 141, is within two matches of winning the only Grand Slam singles title missing from his Las Vegas trophy room. The 29-year- old former world No 1 dispatched Marcelo Filippini, a 31-year-old qualifier from Uruguay, 6-2, 6-2, 6-0 after only 72 minutes to advance to the semi- finals, having already accounted for the defending champion, Carlo Moya, along the way.

A note of caution, however. Agassi, the No 13 seed, was expected to duel with Marcelo Rios, the Chilean ninth seed and former world No 1, for a place in Sunday's final. Instead, the American will play Dominik Hrbaty, a 21-year-old Slovakian, ranked No 30, who may be prove a bigger threat judging by his performance in defeating Rios in the quarter-finals, 7- 6, 6-2, 6-7, 6-3. Hrbaty, remember, eliminated Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the world No 1, in straight sets in the second round.

Agassi knows about Hrbaty, who won their only previous match at the Lipton Championships, in Florida, in March. "I'm not too concerned with that result," Agassi said. "While it was a good performance on his part, I wasn't completely recovered from the hamstring injury I had. We're both playing a lot better than we did then. I'm anticipating a very brutal match. It wouldn't be right if it wasn't that way."

Graf, mercifully injury free and loving every moment on the court, defeated Lindsay Davenport, the towering United States Open champion and No 2 seed, 6-1, 6-7, 6-3, and is about to renew her rivalry with Monica Seles, the No 3 seed, who outplayed Conchita Martinez, the 1994 Wimbledon champion, 6-1, 6-4.

Graf says that if she had been asked at the beginning of the year which Grand Slam title she had he best chance of winning, she would have answered in a word: "Wimbledon." The French Open also has a nice ring. It was here that Graf achieved her first major triumph, in 1987, and she is now within two matches of adding to the five singles titles she has won on the clay courts of Paris.

Suppressing such thoughts, Graf is delighted to have an opportunity to make amends for her poor show against the 25-year-old Seles in their last meeting, in the quarter-finals of the Australian in January. Seles won, 7-5, 6-1, her fifth success in 14 matches against Graf, who was horrified by her own shortcomings.

"I played a good match till a certain point, then it was the worst," Graf recounted. "I couldn't put a ball in court any more. I completely, how do you say, fluked or flanked, something like that." (We settled for funked).

"I need to get myself together and go for my shots, like today.

"I was extremely nervous [when I played Monica in Australia]. I rarely experienced anything like that before. I didn't even have an explanation for it, which obviously made it more difficult. I guess I'm going to try to go in there relaxed this time and see what happens."

Davenport, who does not like playing on clay, praised Graf none the less.

"I don't think it's a comeback any more," she said. "I just think she's getting more and more confidence built up after her surgeries. She's so exciting to play. You can tell how happy she is to play and how much every win means to her."

Seles, the runner-up to Sanchez-Vicario here last year, is looking forward to putting Graf to the test. "I think both of us are really strong mentally, and we both want to win, and we both play at a very high level," Seles said.

"I've played some fantastic matches with Steffi. A couple of them are the highlights of my career. But you never go into a match thinking that this match is going to be great, because it could be a terrible match. Both of us are probably going to go in there and, as always, do the best that we can."

Sanchez-Vicario hopes to mark the 10th anniversary of her victory against Graf here as a 17-year-old in 1989 by winning the title for a fourth time.

The scurrying Spaniard was too experienced for the unseeded Sylvia Plischke yesterday, defeating the Austrian, 6-2, 6-4.

In tomorrow's semi-finals, Sanchez-Vicario, the No 7 seed, will play Martina Hingis, the 18-year-old world No 1, who overcame the power of Austria's Barbara Schwartz, 6-2, 6-2. Schwartz eliminated Venus Williams in the fourth round.

"My plan was the same as against Williams," the 20-year-old Schwartz said.

"I tried to hit the ball hard and to stay in the court, because I knew I couldn't do much from behind the line. It was a really tough for me, because it was my eighth match today, starting in the qualifying, and I was playing against the No 1 in the world. I just tried to play my best tennis. In the beginning it worked really great, maybe because she doesn't know me that well. Then I wasn't moving so well, and I made too many mistakes."

Between them, Graf, Sanchez-Vicario and Seles have won 34 Grand Slam singles titles between them and have dominated the French Open women's singles championships since 1987, with the exception of one. That was in 1997, when Iva Majoli, of Croatia, defeated Hingis in the final. Hingis, like Agassi, needs the singles title here to complete a set of the Grand Slams.

The first time Hingis played Sanchez-Vicario was on clay in Hilton Head, South Carolina, in 1996. The Swiss took the first set, 6-0, and lost the next two, 6-2, 6-2. Since then Hingis has won all nine of their nine matches, including a straight sets victory in the French Open quarter-finals in 1997.

Last year, after Hingis defeated Venus Williams in the quarter-finals, the world No 1 made the mistake of talking confidently about meeting Sanchez-Vicario in the final, overlooking the fact that she first had to overcome Seles in the semi-finals. Seles taught her a lesson, 6-3, 6-2.

"The last two years I played here, I wanted the title so much that I did some things wrong," Hingis admitted. "I was not ready for my next match and I underestimated the players sometimes. I definitely didn't do it today. Now I hope I won't do it in the next round. "I like playing Arantxa, but she's very dangerous here, mentally strong. This is her favourite tournament. She won it three times and is at another level playing here. I definitely have to take her seriously."

The tournament is bubbling nicely towards a memorable climax.