Tennis: Kafelnikov survives barrage

US Open: Russian sets up fascinating semi-final against Agassi after facing ace assault from Krajicek
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The Independent Online
WE HAPPILY have reached the stage when frustration concerning injuries at the United States Open has been replaced by keen anticipation of major contests in both the men's and women's singles.

Andre Agassi, the No 2 seed, whose advance through the lower half of the men's draw has helped alleviate the depression caused by the dearth of leading players in the top half, is due to meet Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the No 3 seed, in a semi-final that will decide which of them ends the tournament as the world No 1 in the absence of Pete Sampras.

The women's singles is virtually guaranteed a grand finale, in terms of personalities if not scheduling (the final is to be staged after tomorrow's men's semi-finals), with Venus Williams renewing her rivalry in the last four today with Martina Hingis, the world No 1, and the younger Williams sister, Serena, duelling with Lindsay Davenport, the defending champion.

Agassi progressed to the semi-finals with a 7-6, 6-3, 6-4 win against Nicolas Escude, a French qualifier whose performance mocked his ranking, No 136, and Kafelnikov prevailed after an amazing marathon against Richard Krajicek, the 1996 Wimbledon champion.

Krajicek hit 48 aces - the most ever recorded in a mainline tournament - in recovering from two sets to love down. He also won two more points than Kafelnikov (169-167), converted more break points (five of seven against one of three), and yet was defeated, 6-7, 6-7, 6-3, 6-1, 7-6, after three hours and 20 minutes.

Goran Ivanisevic scored the previous highest number of aces ever recorded in a a main draw, 46, in losing to Sweden's Magnus Norman in the second round at Wimbledon in 1997 (Gary Muller, of South Africa, hit 54 in a match in the Wimbledon pre-qualifying tournament in 1993).

Krajicek was not particularly chuffed to be a record-breaker. "Do I get to the semi-finals for that in the next Grand Slam? No, I'd rather hit how many Kafelnikov hit, 13 or something, and be in the semis."

Kafelnikov was relieved to have survived the barrage. "There's nothing much you can do about Richard's first serve," he said. "You're just hoping the praying for the second serve."

The Russian hit the ace that counted most, on his fourth match point.

Kafelnikov, who has won four of his seven previous matches against Agassi, is delighted to be in a position to go to No 1 with a victory. His previous elevation, a quirk of the ATP Tour computer last May, came after a run of six consecutive opening-round defeats.

"You [press] guys put me under so much pressure, criticising me for being No 1 and losing so many straight matches, and it wasn't easy to handle that. But I was able to tough it out."

Kafelnikov is determined to show similar resilience when faced with Agassi and 23,000 partisan supporters. "The fans are going to go ape-shit," he said, "but it's going to be wonderful, because the match is going to be important for both of us."

The New York crowds fascinate him. "It's like a paradox," he said. "One minute they like you; the next minute they hate you, for no reason whatsoever."

Agassi, asked why Kafelnikov can be such a difficult opponent, said: "The guy's good. That's what's difficult about him. He moves well, and has a wide range of shots. He can flatten out both his forehand and his backhand. He can hit them up the line, he can hit them cross-court."

For Agassi, the No 1 ranking is secondary to the occasion. "I'll give him the No 1 ranking if he gives me Saturday." Not that Agassi lacks the confidence. "I feel like a spring chicken," he said.

Serena Williams defeated Monica Seles, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, to reach her first Grand Slam semi-final at the age of 17. Seles said the Williams' family rivalry helped the sisters. "Serena and Venus have such an advantage to have each other, in terms of company, practice, and pushing each other. I don't think it can get better than that."

Results, Digest, page 31