Agassi remains fit while wear and tear takes toll on rivals

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The Independent Online

As the United States Open continued to creep along in a raincoat, one match at time between the drizzle, the indefatigable Andre Agassi notched his 200th win in Grand Slam singles tournaments.

Agassi's fourth-round match against his fellow American Taylor Dent was the only one completed on Tuesday, and the entire day-time programme was washed out yesterday. Agassi was the only man through to the quarter-finals and in the women's singles Jennifer Capriati and Justine Henin-Hardenne are still waiting for quarter-final oppponents. The organisers admitted last night that if there is no play today, a Monday final is inevitable.

The 33-year-old Agassi would not rate Tuesday night's victory against Dent among his most memorable. The 22-year-old retired with a damaged right hamstring when trailing, 6-7, 6-4, 7-5, before his impressive serve and volleying could challenge the world No 1 beyond three sets. "To see Taylor get injured in a big match is just outright disappointing for everybody," Agassi said. "It doesn't matter if it's my 200th [win] or my first match, it's not how you want to see it end."

None the less, the latest milestone in Agassi's career puts him fourth in the list of prolific Grand Slam match winners behind Jimmy Connors (233), Ivan Lendl (222) and Pete Sampras, whose 203 wins he would equal if he takes the title next Sunday (or whenever the tournament squelches to a conclusion).

The Connors statistic is particularly interesting in relation to Agassi, who is asked each time he arrives and leaves a tournament if it will be his last. Connors, who played to age 40, went through a similar routine with the media. "You'll be the first to know," he would growl, "and you'll miss me when I've gone." Agassi adopts a more temperate tone, but knows he will create a chasm when he follows Sampras, Jim Courier and Michael Chang into the real world.

Connors won the last of his eight Grand Slam titles ­ the number Agassi has now ­ here at the US Open, aged 31. He competed in 22 more majors before pumping his fists at a roaring crowd here for the last time in the second round in 1992. Although it is doubtful that Agassi will be returning serves with interest for another seven years, he is among the fittest competitors in a sport increasingly beset with injury problems. The 73rd-ranked Dent has struggled physically for most of the year, so it was no great surprise when his coach, Brad Stine, signalled the end, with Agassi leading 5-4 in the third set.

"If I had got that set to a tie-breaker or won that set, I would have stayed out there for five sets," Dent said. "I would have been kneeling to hit my serve." Stine was thinking longer term, not wanting Dent to damage his career for the sake of showing the crowd how brave he is. Three years ago at Wimbledon, Dent won the first set against Agassi, but retired, 4-0 down in the third set, because of a torn tendon in his right knee.

Agassi, who has had injury problems in the past, is able to choose his tournaments to conserve his energy for the majors. "It's a sport for the young," Agassi reminded reporters the other day. "There's not many 32 or 33-year-olds out there. If they are, the question is where they are playing in reference to where they played in the past. You come into it young. There's a lot of wear and tear, no off-season to rest, then prepare, then go again. You travel the entire globe. There are mental and physical demands on your body: your joints, elbows, shoulders, knees, back. The body takes a pretty good beating."

Players obsessed by the pursuit of ranking points. are tempted to carry injuries, and more than 25 per cent of those who have reached the top 20 in the past five years have had surgery.

Worries about the number of injuries extend to the women's game, where Martina Hingis has retired because of foot problems and the dominating Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, both withdrew from the US Open.

Lendl, the ultimate professional in the 1980s, who eventually retired because of a back injury, said on television recently that he was pleased that one of his daughters had decided to take up professional golf because it would enable her to avoid the injuries associated with professional tennis.

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