Tennis: Agassi waits as Medvedev powers in

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The Independent Online
ANDRE AGASSI was on the brink of his third men's singles final at the French Open, the only Grand Slam title to have eluded him, when rain stopped play last night. Agassi led the Slovak Dominik Hrbaty 6-4, 7-6, 3-6, and trailed 2-1 on serve in the fourth set. Their semi-final is scheduled to resume at noon today, with the winner due to play the Ukrainian Andrei Medvedev in tomorrow's final.

When Agassi and Hrbaty finish their business, Steffi Graf is due to play her 84th match at the tournament, which is one fewer than the number of unforced errors Medvedev committed in overcoming Fernando Meligeni, of Brazil. Meligeni actually scored two more points than Medvedev (147-145), but the Ukrainian won 7-5, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6, after three hours.

At times the quality of the tennis was as grey as the cool, blustery day, but the contest was not lacking in entertainment. Meligeni kept the result in doubt until the final point, forcing Medvedev on the back foot whenever the Ukrainian came close to finishing the job.

The 24-year-old Medvedev, who attributes his revival to his love for Anke Huber, was watched by the German player, whose expression was often as anxious as his own. Many a drop shot has helped Medvedev advance through the tournament, and one on match point put paid to Meligeni, 8-6 in the fourth set tie-break. "After running for three hours," Meligeni said, "it's difficult to imagine what the guy is going to do after you serve a very good serve, and he puts in a drop shot. It was very smart of him."

Medvedev's career tends to be lifted by visits to the clay courts of Paris, but never as much as during the past fortnight. He was a semi-finalist here in 1993, losing to Sergi Bruguera, of Spain, who went on to win the final that year and successfully defended it in 1994.

When Medvedev eliminated Pete Sampras, the No 2 seed, in the second round, much was made of the Wimbledon champion's uncertainty on clay. However, Medvedev's straight sets victory against Gustavo Kuerten showed there was genuine substance to his challenge.

Meligeni, aged 28 and ranked No 54, is one of the more experienced clay court players on the ATP Tour. He, too, sharpened his game on highly-fancied contenders, defeating Australia's Pat Rafter, the No 3 seed, in the third round, and the Spaniard Alex Corretja, last year's runner-up, in the quarter- finals.

The Brazilian may have imagined the day was destined to be his after taking a 4-0 lead in the opening set, but the points began to go astray. "I lost my concentration a little bit, and he started to play aggressively," Meligeni said. "When you are 4-0 down, you have nothing to lose."

Medvedev needed that first set. By the middle of the second set he was beginning to feel dizzy from lack of sleep the night before and during the third set he called for the trainer. "He gave me some magic pills, and they worked," Medvedev said. "Then I had cramps. I think if it had been a normal match, maybe in the first or second round, I may have given up. But it was the semis of a Slam, only the second one in my life.

"All I thought was to fight like a dog. If I died on the court today, I wouldn't care. If my heart had stopped, then I would have been proud that I'm dead this way. Normally I sleep eight hours. Last night it wasn't even half of that. The first three pills the trainer gave me were just minerals. Then he gave me one for the cramping. It didn't work, so I asked him for another one. He said, `That's a double dose'. I said, `Yeah, but I'm a double guy.'"

Summarising his progress to the final, Medvedev said: "It's a minor miracle. On the other hand, it doesn't fall from the sky. You have to work for it. It's sort of a second birth to me. I've been out of competitive tennis, in my mind, for a long time. To be back, but not by accident, feels great."

Meligeni expressed admiration for Medvedev's fortitude. "I think he has a very good mind to stay in the match like he did," he said.

By this time, Medvedev was midway through composing a sonnet for Anke. "Even if I had lost today, I would still be the happiest man on earth," he said. "Tennis is one thing, and it's great to win, it's fantastic. But although I love my job, you cannot compare love for an occupation with love for a person."