Tennis: Agassi the great survivor

Grand Slam Cup: American showman sweeps into final after saving four match points
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The Independent Online
ANDRE AGASSI carved out the unlikeliest and most dramatic of victories in the semi-finals of the Compaq Grand Slam Cup in Munich last night when he survived four match points against Karol Kucera and then swept through the next 10 games to win an extraordinary contest 7-6 6-7 2-6 7-5 6-0 in three hours 40 minutes. So Agassi, in the event by courtesy of a wild card, will play the final this afternoon against Marcelo Rios for a possible pay day of just under pounds 1m.

Agassi was trailing 2-5 in the fourth set and on the brink of defeat when the activities of a hectic week suddenly caught up with Kucera. He had played Davis Cup for the Slovak Republic against Argentina in Buenos Aires last weekend, when the tie was delayed by bad weather until Monday. He then flew to Munich, had to play against Hicham Arazi and then, on Friday night, endured a two hour 15 minute contest against Goran Ivanisevic. Television dictated that he should be brought back on court for the semi- final just 16 hours after he left it and though he is big and strong and brave, he is not Superman. He did well still to be on his feet at the end of one of the most riveting contests that even this demanding tournament has witnessed.

Afterwards Kucera revealed that exhaustion had started to set in as early as the second set. Agassi said he felt he had a chance when he saw Kucera starting to stretch his legs early in the fourth. "It was a very physical match and real good tennis. I would be lying if I said I wasn't tired too. But I only have to be a bit less tired than my opponent. That's the good news about tennis, you're not judged by perfection, you're judged by your opponent."

The first point of the match was a 22-shot rally, an indication of things to come. Agassi was the liveliest out of the blocks and struck to lead 5-3 when Kucera dropped serve on a forehand error. This should have been the signal for Agassi to run away with the first set, but he is not the first to find this year that Kucera is a leading figure in what might be termed the Rasputin faction in tennis: difficult to put away. Victories this season over Pete Sampras, Patrick Rafter, Rios and Agassi himself have helped lift him to sixth in the world rankings.

The Slovak, his groundstrokes penetrating and powerful, immediately broke back and took the set into a tiebreak, but here his confidence was shattered temporarily. First, he double-faulted, then, from a lead of four points to one, Agassi swept the next three. Agassi really should have sewn up a place in the final by winning the second set but a combination of his lax play and Kucera's rock-hard determination dictated otherwise. Agassi broke to love and served for the set at 5-4, only to drop his own delivery when a Kucera forehand landed plumb on the baseline. Back came Agassi to break Kucera to love, only for the Slovak to snatch the Agassi serve and send the match into a second tiebreak. This time Agassi was not allowed to dictate and the match was level at one set all after an hour and 44 minutes.

The third set opened with another break of serve against Agassi, who suddenly began to struggle against the relentless stream of groundstrokes coming his way. Regarded as the finest returner of serve in tennis, the American was forced to watch as Kucera made a bid to take over that title, pounding anything which Agassi pitched short. He dropped serve again and Kucera moved into a two sets to one lead with the match two hours and 17 minutes old.

Now came the test of Agassi's previous weakness, stamina. He had lost in five sets to Kucera at the US Open last month and it seemed he would go down this time in four sets as Kucera broke him in the opening game and stretched a 4-2 lead to 5-2 with a forehand which pitched exactly on the junction of baseline and sideline.

After two hours 50 minutes Kucera stepped up for the formality of serving out for the match but, with dramatic suddenness, started to flex and massage his legs. The dreaded cramp was threatening him. Still, all he needed to do was hold serve. But it proved beyond him. Four times he got to match point and four times Agassi, well aware of the change in physical fortunes, ran Kucera around. The first two match points evaporated on Kucera forehand errors. An overhit forehand saw off match point three and the fourth one was saved by Agassi himself with a ripping forehand service return winner as the match ticked into its third hour.

That was the end for Kucera, though he bravely opted to battle on. Agassi swept four games to win the fourth set, then raced through the next six to clock up one of the most extraordinary victories even he has achieved. "I wasn't expecting that one today, for sure," he said.

In the other semi-final, Rios, the Chilean left-hander, needed only an hour and 42 minutes to defeat Mark Philippoussis of Australia 7-6 6-3 6-4.

l Greg Rusedski reached the final of the ATP Tour event in Toulouse when he defeated Nicolas Kiefer of Germany 6-4 6-1. Rusedski, who struck 11 aces and got 72 per cent of his first serves on target, was in great form after taking a wild card into the tournament. It is his first final since he was runner-up at Indian Wells in March.