Tennis: Australian Open - Agassi's rivals feel the heat

Korda out, Courier defaults, and Serena Williams cries foul
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ANOTHER flawless performance from Andre Agassi yesterday established him as clear favourite to win the men's title at the Australian Open. The 28-year-old American, seeded fifth, is now the highest-rated player left in the draw and after clocking up his third successive straight-sets victory by crushing the Czech Jiri Novak 6-3 6-2 6-1, Agassi was in confident voice.

"If I can keep up that standard I like my chances against anybody," he said. Having plumbed the depths 14 months ago, when his ranking had slumped to 144 in the wake of his marriage to Brooke Shields, Agassi is striding confidently in pursuit of his first Grand Slam triumph in four years - also achieved at the Australian Open.

Agassi, who has dropped only 17 games in winning three rounds, next faces his fellow American Vince Spadea, who is ranked 44th and is appearing in the fourth round of a Grand Slam for only the second time in 17 attempts.

The only cloud on Agassi's sunny horizon is the statistic that Spadea beat him when they last played in Cincinnati in the autumn. The Las Vegan will not run up against a seeded player until the semi-finals at the earliest, when he could face Yevgeny Kafelnikov or Todd Martin.

Agassi has taken full advantage of conditions which perfectly suit his play and his temperament. "The ball jumps off the court pretty high, so I can really work it around, left and right," he said.

"It's quite a while since I felt so good in a Grand Slam. I would have to go back to the US Open of 1995." That was Agassi's finest season, a year in which he won the Australian, was runner-up at the US, a Wimbledon semi-finalist and quarter-finalist in the French.

The defending champion Petr Korda's acrimonious involvement with the tournament ended last night when he was beaten by the 15th-seeded Martin 7-5 4-6 7-6 5-7 6-4. Afterwards Martin, who is president of the Players' Association, congratulated Korda. "I told him he had done really well to play that calibre of tennis after all he has been through. I didn't necessarily agree with the decision to let him play here but I had to respect it."

Korda's problems over the drug charge on which he was found guilty worsened last night when Ion Tiriac, the tournament promoter and former Romanian Davis Cup player, joined the chorus calling for a ban on those who fail tests.

"There should be life bans, criminal charges and they should give back all the money they have made," Tiriac said. "At the moment 90 per cent of the talk is about Korda and only ten per cent about tennis. That's bad."

The tenth-seeded Kafelnikov was gifted an easier time than he had been expecting when Jim Courier, the Australian champion in 1992 and 1993, was forced to default in the fourth set of their match with a groin strain with Kafelnikov leading 6-7 6-4 6-2 3-0.

"I am ready to win big again, big tournaments, big matches," said Kafelnikov, the 1996 French Open champion. "This is the best opportunity I have ever had to win here." The 24-year-old Russian has a voracious appetite for his work and in 1998, despite missing the first month through injury, played 150 matches, by some distance the most of anyone.

Kafelnikov's next opponent is the Romanian, Andrei Pavel, who struggled through five sets to overcome Greg Rusedski's conqueror, the American qualifier Paul Goldstein. The possibility of an all-German fourth round clash between Tommy Haas and Nicolas Kiefer was wrecked when Kiefer fell 7-6 6-1 6-3 to France's Fabrice Santoro. Haas put out the Canadian Daniel Nestor, 7-5 4-6 6-3 6-4, and is in line for a quarter-final against Agassi.

Santoro is the lone remaining French male, but there are four women from France through to the last 16, a Grand Slam record in the modern era. The most relieved of this quartet is Sandrine Testud, the 14th seed, who was saved from defeat against Serena Williams by an umpiring overrule when she was match point down for the second time.

After hitting what she fondly thought was the match- winning shot, Williams ran towards the net for a victory handshake only for the Italian umpire Laura Ceccarelli to respond to Testud's frantic gesturing by ruling the ball out.

Three games later Williams netted a backhand to be beaten 6-2 2-6 9-7, hurled her racket at the net in disgust, refused to shake the umpire's hand and was booed off court. The American complained afterwards that she had been "cheated" on her first match point at 5-4, never mind the second.

Now Testud tackles the four-time Australian champion Monica Seles, who extended her extraordinary record at the event to 31 matches without defeat by edging nervously past Sabine Appelmans of Belgium 6-3 3-6 6-4. Seles admitted she would need to improve on yesterday's form to keep the streak alive against Testud. "If I play like this again, for sure I won't come out the winner," she said.

Success against Testud in the fourth round would put Seles in line for a momentous clash with another winner of four Australian titles, Steffi Graf. The 29-year-old German, who has amassed 21 Grand Slam titles, needed to battle for two hours to overcome Mary Jo Fernandez 4-6 6-3 6-4, and her fightback was aided when the American needed treatment to an ailing elbow in the second set. Fernandez saved two match points before hitting a service return wide.

Anna Kournikova, the 12th-seeded Russian beauty who has become Queen of the Yips, extended her abysmal total of double faults to 161 in her last eight matches as she staggered to another unimpressive win by 4-6 6-2 6-3 over Germany's Andrea Glass. In the face of some dreadful statistics, Kournikova maintained, "I'm playing better and better," citing that she had halved her total of double faults in this particular contest to a mere 14 after the horrendous 31 in her previous match, which is a tournament record.

Kournikova will certainly need to play better next time out, when she faces the 1995 champion, Mary Pierce, who has yet to concede a set and comfortably beat the Italian Rita Grande 6-2 6-2.

Martina Hingis, winner in Melbourne for the past two years, has also not dropped a set. Her latest victim, by a score of 6-1 6-2 in 48 minutes, was the 15-year-old Australian Jelena Dokic, nicknamed the Baby-Faced Slugger after becoming world junior champion.