Tennis: Martin matures in style

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WITH SO MANY teenagers scurrying about the courts, it seems remarkable that one of today's semi-finalists at the United States Open here should have grey hairs. And Todd Martin had most of them even before Tuesday's amazing comeback against Greg Rusedski.

Martin is 29; not as old as he looks, and a year younger than his opponent, Cedric Pioline. The bald fellow in the other semi-final is Andre Agassi, also aged 29. Somebody asked Martin if he put any significance to the fact that players aged 30, 29, 29, and 25, were vying for the title. "It shows me that [Yevgeny] Kafelnikov is a little out of place," he said.

Martin, who studied philosophy, preferred to take the alternative view. "If the older body is fit and healthy," he said, "I think it makes sense that there can be success at this age, because having experience and knowledge, maybe a little bit more perspective than some of the other guys, might actually help."

The No 7 seed from Lansing, Michigan, felt like a grandfather after practising for half an hour on Thursday morning. Martin told his trainer, Todd Snyder, that he was not sure he could play the quarter-final against Slava Dosedel that night. Snyder assured Martin that the adrenaline would "kick in" during the match.

"I felt better than I thought I would; not as well as I'd like," Martin said after defeating the unseeded Czech, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4. "The good news is that I didn't deplete myself as I did the other night [against Rusedski]. I'm assuming I'll be in better shape come Saturday."

Pioline said he "felt a bit older" after winning a marvellous quarter- final against Gustavo Kuerten, the Brazilian No 5 seed, 4-6, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6. "It was very humid out there," the Frenchman added, "a big physical effort."

Two related incidents helped concentrate Pioline's mind: a spectacular forehand pass down the line at 9-9 in the third set tie-break, and Kuerten's reaction to it. The Brazilian dropped his racket, applauded, walked round the net, and shook Pioline's hand.

"I didn't see he was clapping," said Pioline, who slid to the ground after making the shot. "When I stood up and turned, he was there, saying `Shake my hand'. I said, `What's going on? You've stopped, or what?' Normally when you cross over, it's because you finish."

"It was an amazing shot," Kuerten said. "I couldn't believe it. I played the point well, he played it better than me. So I congratulated him."

Pioline took the tie-break, 16-14, and secured the match by winning the third consecutive shoot-out, 10-8. The unseeded Pioline, runner-up at the 1993 US Open, and also at Wimbledon in 1997, having had the misfortune to run into Pete Sampras on each occasion, is pleased to be meeting Martin in the semi-finals.

"I prefer to play Todd, because he's a nice guy," he said. "Sometimes he's too nice on court, so it's better maybe. No, seriously, I prefer to play a top 10 player in the semi-final at the US Open than to play Dosedel. And it's nice because Todd's American. It's going to be a good ambience."

Pioline has won five of his eight previous matches against Martin, most recently in three sets in the second round of the Stella Artois Championships on the lawns of London's Queen's Club in June. This will be their first meeting in a Grand Slam tournament.

"He's probably the prettiest player to watch on the Tour," Martin said. "I'm probably at the other end of the spectrum. He has athleticism and grace; big, loopy strokes; he's French. I think I'm athletic in my own special way, but nowhere near to the extent that he is.

"It's fun to play him. He's a great guy, a good sportsman. Seeing the great way he played in the quarters, I'm looking forward to the challenge."

The spectators are looking forward to a Martin victory in the semi-final against Pioline, and an all-American final between Martin and Agassi, whose match against Kafelnikov, the Russian No 3 seed, also has the world No 1 ranking riding on it. "I know crowds look ahead more than players do," Martin said. "More than anything, I hope they're excited to see two great matches on Saturday and one on Sunday. Hopefully, Andre and I can meet there."

As a reminder that Wimbledon does not have a monopoly on rain, a downpour delayed the start of yesterday's women's semi-finals between Lindsay Davenport and Serena Williams and Martina Hingis and Venus Williams.

The weatherman told the CBS tennis commentator, Mary Carillo, that his radar screen indicated the rain would clear. "Blue is good?" Carillo said.

"No," the forecaster replied. "Blue is the ocean."