Agassi's art defies age and adversity

American icon goes the distance again to become oldest finalist since 1974 as Federer flows on

Agassi became the oldest Grand Slam men's singles finalist for 31 years yesterday, when he overcame his 22-year-old American compatriot Robby Ginepri, 6-4 5-7 6-3 4-6 6-3, after two hours 47 minutes. One consolation for Agassi was that Federer played 33 minutes longer yesterday in defeating Lleyton Hewitt, the 2001 champion, 6-3 7-6 4-6 6-3.

It was Federer's ninth win in a row against Hewitt, though the Australian third seed, trounced by the Swiss in last year's final, 6-0 7-6 6-0, was far more competitive this time. He could not have fought harder. He had five set points on Federer's serve at 5-6 in the second set, only for the title-holder to save them all before going on to win the tie-break, 7-0.

Hewitt, after saving three break points and fighting through nine deuces in the second game of the third set, broke for 4-3 and converted his second set point with a forehand drive. Prior to that, Hewitt had lost 17 sets in a row against Federer. The problem for Hewitt this time was that his serve deserted him in the sixth game of the fourth set, when he double-faulted twice to 0-40 and then netted a backhand to be broken for 4-2.

Agassi is the oldest man to reach the final since the 39-year-old Australian Ken Rosewall lost to Jimmy Connors at Forest Hills in 1974. The seventh-seed from Las Vegas was playing a third consecutive five-set match for the first time in his career. The 46th-ranked Ginepri was going the distance for the fourth time in a row, a US Open record. The contest ended with Agassi hitting an ace on match point before turning to be acclaimed by 23,000 spectators in Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Asked how he would prepare for the next challenge, Agassi said: "I'll eat well, put my feet up, then take a little extra time warming up. I feel surprisingly good, believe it or not. The work's done. It's just about executing."

Having fought back from two sets down to overhaul the New Yorker James Blake in the quarter-finals, Agassi made a brisk start this time, breaking for 2-0 in the opening set. Although Ginepri broke back to 3-3, he missed a backhand at 0-30 in the ninth game, and Agassi converted the break point with a forehand drive-volley, serving out the set after 33 minutes and finishing with a smash.

The players exchanged breaks in the second set ­ Ginepri for 3-1, Agassi for 2-3 ­ and then duelled through 18 points in a demanding third game in which Agassi saved seven break points before hitting a forehand to hold for 3-3.

Agassi created an opportunity for 4-3, only for Ginepri to erase it with a potent second serve, and Agassi's game buckled as he served at 5-6, hoping to take the set to a tie-break.

Ginepri struck, responding to a backhand drop-shot with a surprising forehand drop-shot to reach 15-40. Agassi then hit a backhand long to lose the set after 45 minutes. At this point, Agassi had committed 20 backhand errors and hit only two backhand winners. Moreover, his first serve percentage had dropped alarmingly.

Having taken a set off Agassi for the first time in their four matches, Ginepri had reason to believe he could spring ahead on legs 13 years younger than his opponent's. Agassi's speed of thought is undiminished, however, and he broke for 2-1 in the third set with a trademark service return. The effect on Ginepri's confidence was evident, and as he wavered he was prey to an Agassi revival.

Ginepri, serving at 3-5, saved three set points, only to hit a forehand longto lose the set after 32 minutes. After receiving attention to a blistered right index finger, Ginepri levelled the match, breaking for 4-3 and serving out the fourth set, hitting a backhand down the line on the first set point after 27 minutes.

In the final set, it was Agassi who had the physical and mental capacity to break for 4-2 with a drop-shot: Ginepri won only one more game.

As the tournament waited to crown a new women's singles champion last night, it was difficult to recall the all-Russian final of a year ago.

Although maiden "ovas" continue to flourish on the WTA Tour, they have been rather subdued at the major championships. But a largely disappointing women's tournament might still have ended with Russians again taking centre stage. In Friday's semi-finals, however, the 18-year-old Maria Sharapova lost to the Belgian Kim Clijsters, 6-2 6-7 6-3, and Elena Dementieva's rhythm and concentration was trampled by Mary Pierce, who took a 12-minute injury time-out after losing the opening set and prevailed, 3-6 6-2 6-2.

Comments