Tennis: US Open - Agassi revival knows no bounds

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THE INCREDIBLE Andre Agassi success story in the 1999 Grand Slams moved to its third stage yesterday when he added to his French Open championship and Wimbledon runner-up achievement by reaching the final of the US Open.

Facing what everyone expected to be his toughest test so far, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Agassi overcame a shaky start to crush the Russian 1-6 6-3 6-3 6-3. In this afternoon's final he will meet his compatriot, Todd Martin, who put away France's Cedric Pioline 6-4 6-1 6-2. The clash of the two 29-year-olds will be the first all-American final here since Pete Sampras defeated Michael Chang in 1996.

The Agassi-Kafelnikov semi-final was also a decider for the world No 1 ranking. Which-ever man won it would be the new top man in the game when the latest rankings are published tomorrow. So, for the second time this year, Agassi will be back at the summit of the sport, an astonishing comeback from his plummet to 141st less than two years ago.

Both men had already captured one Grand Slam this year - Kafelnikov the Australian and Agassi at Roland Garros. So, in the absence of the injured Pete Sampras, they were disputing the right to be top gun for the year. With reason, Agassi will be confident of trousering this title too, since he leads Martin 9-5 in their career head-to-head. They have met twice previously in Grand Slams, Martin winning in five sets at Wimbledon 1994 and Agassi triumphing in four at the US Open the following year.

"It's really exciting," said a sweat-soaked Agassi after his two hour 12-minute victory. "It couldn't come down to a better day. I am so happy for Todd the way he has been playing and it's great to have two Americans in the final. Todd is very aggressive and is going to present a lot of problems. But, for me, it's go time."

It looked for a while as if it would be go-home time for the bald Las Vegan on a perfect New York autumn day. To a shocked silence Agassi was broken twice in the opening set, which he lost in a mere 21 minutes amid a welter of indifferent serving.

In the whole set he managed to land only four first serves on target and certainly spoke the truth when he said afterwards: "I got off to a rough start. But it was breezy and hard to get a good swipe at the ball. I struggled for my rhythm. I was trying to force it too much but then I relaxed a bit and started moving my feet better."

The recovery was launched when, to massive reaction from the crowd, Agassi broke for a 3-1 lead in the second set. Immediately the bearded Kafelnikov looked vulnerable as Agassi improved the quality of both his serving and returning. His sustained assault on the Russian's backhand began to pay dividends and he also benefited from the odd spot of good fortune, such as the Kafelnikov shot called out at set point in the second set when the ball was shown to have landed square on the baseline.

A couple of other "home town" calls so enraged Kafelnikov that he let rip with an expletive, was overheard and reported by a line judge and given a conduct warning by the British umpire Mike Morrissey for an audible obscenity.

Another service break at the start of the third set maintained the Agassi momentum and with just over an hour and a half gone he went ahead by two sets to one and the Russian looked broken. Any thoughts of recovery were spiked by Agassi's whirlwind finish in which he hammered six aces in his final three service games.

Martin's crushing victory in the other semi-final merely served to show what a glorious opportunity Greg Rusedski threw away to get to a Grand Slam final when, in their fourth-round clash, the British No 2 led Martin by two sets and 4-1, only to fall apart. The enormous benefit to Martin's confidence from that win was balanced by the fact that he spent two hours afterwards on an intravenous drip.

Yesterday, however, it was the 30-year-old Pioline who looked the weary one after his gruelling quarter-final against Gustavo Kuerten. He managed to stay level with Martin for most of the first set but once Martin broke the Frenchman to go a set up he accelerated away impressively, sweeping through the second set in 25 minutes and taking the third in 29. Pioline managed to capture only three of the last 16 games.

This is the second Grand Slam final of Martin's nine-year professional career. He was runner-up at the Australian Open of 1994 and will be only too aware that he should have got to the 1996 Wimbledon final, where he led MaliVai Washington 5-1 in the fifth set of their semi-final only, by his own admission, to choke the match away. Nowadays he seems experienced enough not to let that happen again today.