Age is no barrier for Agassi while Hewitt wins latest epic

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The Independent Online

In the semi-finals tomorrow, Hewitt, the third seed, will play the winner of the contest between Roger Federer, the defending champion, and David Nalbandian, of Argentina. We can only hope that the concluding days produce even a smattering of the excitement and enchantment of Agassi's epic quarter-final against his American compatriot James Blake.

As a child, Agassi hit a few balls with Jimmy Connors. As a young player, Agassi developed the best return of serve since Connors. As a senior citizen of the courts, Agassi, 35, is about to become the oldest men's singles semi-finalist here since Connors, who was 39 in 1991.

Connors was loved and Agassi is loved, but in a different way. From the moment Connors roared on the scene as an objectionable teenager to the time he took his leave as an elder statesmen, he was a snarling, in-your-face, blood-and-guts merchant, more likely to rip up the court than to bow and blow kisses.

Agassi was an objectionable teenaged under-achiever who matured into a genuine champion, tempering his on-court behaviour in the process to become a great ambassador for his sport.

Blake was two sets up against the bald eagle from Las Vegas, only to lose, 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6. Swallowing his disappointment, the personable competitor from Yonkers, New York, who impressed everybody with his charm, talent and fighting spirit, encapsulated the Agassi phenomenon.

"You can hear it in the crowd," Blake said. "I had the crowd on my side for my first four matches, unbelievably strong. And to see how much they reacted to him and still want a champion like him to advance is really great for tennis." We must enjoy Agassi for however long he chooses to play on with cortisone injections to deaden sciatica.

His immediate goal is to represent himself and his country in Sunday's final. To achieve this he must dash the ambition of another compatriot, the 22-year-old Robby Ginepri, of Florida, who defeated Guillermo Coria, of Argentina, in five sets. Ginepri will need a heart of oak if he is to come as close to beating Agassi as Blake did.

Ten years Agassi's junior, Blake scampered about the court hitting wonderful shots for two hours 51 minutes, only to lose, 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6.

Agassi has now prevailed from two sets down six times in his career, but never before at the US Open. Moreover, before overcoming the Belgian Xavier Malisse in the fourth round, he had lost his last four five-set matches in a row.

Blake, as Agassi confirmed, was untouchable in the opening set, provoking Agassi into rushing his shots in the second set. When Blake broke for 3-2 in the third set, some commentators began to consider how they would broach the question of retirement to Agassi. From that moment, however, the 20,000 spectators in Arthur Ashe Stadium were thrilled by one of Agassi's most astonishing comebacks, and were on their feet cheering until 1.15am as the drama unfolded.

In the fourth set, Agassi broke for 2-1, was broken back to 3-3, and broke twice more to level the match. The momentum appeared to have swung back to Blake in the final set, when he broke for 3-2 and served for the match at 5-4. The tenacious Agassi allowed Blake only one point that pivotal game, but had a stroke of luck when his return on break point clipped the net-cord and his opponent's forehand flew wide.

Blake won the first three points of the tie-break. Agassi recovered to 3-3 and then two mini-breaks gave him the first match point at 6-5. Blake saved it with a forehand drive down the line. Agassi created a second match point with a backhand pass down the line and converted for 8-6, returning a second serve with a forehand down the line.

"On that second serve," Blake said, "I was thinking, 'I've got to roll it in, give myself a chance, not go for too much'. I gave myself a chance. He took a chance. And it worked for him. He's great at taking calculated risks. He figured I was going to roll it in, he stepped around and ripped it up the line for a winner. You've got to take your hat off to him for that." After thanking the crowd for staying so late and cheering so heartily, Agassi said: "To be honest, with the way a mentality like mine works, this means as much to me as doing it in the final. This is what it's about: authentic competition, getting out there and having respect for each other's game and respect for each other and letting it fly and letting it be just about tennis."

Asked about Connors, Agassi said: "What Jimmy did was incredible. When I played him, he was 35 or 36. I don't know if I was old enough to understand what it meant to him. That year he got to the semi-finals, I lost first round. I didn't have a chance to absorb it. I've heard him talk about it as if it was the most meaningful thing to him."