Agassi advance raises expectations and rolls back the years

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With scarcely a seed left to write home about, the 32-year-old Andre Agassi is the focus of expectation and nostalgia at the Italian Open today as he prepares to contest only his second quarter-final here in 13 years. The last time the Las Vegan advanced this far, as a cocky under-achiever in 1989, he progressed to the final and held a championship point against Alberto Mancini, of Argentina, in the fourth set.

Agassi said: "I was being very patient and ended up hitting a forehand rally shot straight into the net. I went out wide to hit a kick serve. I was thinking to go up the middle to go for the ace on championship point. Then I said: 'No, don't be stupid, just hit a good first serve'. I was stupid." Mancini, who had already won the Monte Carlo Open that year, went on to thrash a dispirited Agassi in the fifth set, 6-1.

"My history hasn't been so good here," added Agassi, who is still awaiting his first title at the Foro Italico and has only progressed beyond the second round three times since 1989. "I think most people would have picked me to lose early this time."

Agassi, at No 9, is the only seed left in the lower half of the draw after impressive straight-sets wins against Nicolas Kiefer, of Germany, and Michel Kratochvil, of Switzerland, and a grinding victory against Agustin Calleri, of Argentina, in the third round yesterday, 7-6, 7-5.

This afternoon, Agassi plays Albert Costa, of Spain, the runner-up here to Jim Courier, in 1992, and to Marcelo Rios in 1998, when injury prevented him from playing the final.

Agassi has not played Costa since defeating him in three sets in the last 16 in Key Biscayne, Florida, in 1998, three months after beating him in four sets in the second round of the Australian Open. Costa won their only match on clay, in straight sets in the third round of the 1996 Monte Carlo Open. "Albert hits a lot of spin and moves well," Agassi said, "but I'm playing much better now than I've been playing on the clay for a long time, and I'm up to the challenge."

Costa, No 21 in the ATP tournament entry list, defeated a compatriot, Albert Montanes, 7-6, 6-3, in the third round yesterday while Agassi was trading shots with the big-hitting Calleri. After exchanging breaks in the opening two games, Agassi and Calleri battled to the first set tie-break, the Argentinian making crucial errors as Agassi won the shoot-out, 7-4.

Agassi saved a set point when serving at 4-5 in the second set, and then made the decisive break in the next game. This went on for 20 points, Calleri saving three break points before double-faulting on the fourth. The Argentinain then pushed Agassi in the concluding game, forcing the American to save two break points. Calleri netted a forehand attempting to return a second serve on match point.

"If there's any questions for me left this week, today helped answer those," Agassi said. "Clay demands a different mentality, because things can quickly change. "

The unseeded Carlos Moya, of Spain, who eliminated Lleyton Hewitt, the world No 1, in the second round, advanced to the quarter-finals with a 6-2, 6-1 win against Sweden's Thomas Enqvist. Moya, the runner-up to his countryman Juan Carlos Ferrero in Monte Carlo, now plays Tommy Haas, of Germany, the highest seed left – at No 7. Haas beat Sebastien Grosjean, of France, 6-3, 6-4.