If you could pick a player to meet on clay the day after eliminating Andre Agassi, it would not be Alex Corretja. Unfortunately for Dominik Hrbaty, he did not have a choice, and was defeated by the Spaniard in the quarter-finals of the Italian Open, 6-1, 7-6. Hrbaty, like Agassi on Thursday, doubled-faulted on the final point.
Hrbaty was not the only player catching up with Agassi here yesterday. Sweden's Magnus Norman is only one point behind the American in the ATP Champions Race after defeating Felix Mantilla, of Spain, yesterday, 6-4, 6-3, and will lead the table if he wins his semi-final today.
On occasion yesterday, Corretja punished Hrbaty as severely as the Slovakian dealt with Agassi. Some of the Spaniard's returns thundered by for winners before Hrbaty could alter his position after serving.
Corretja, the winner of the year's first Masters Series tournament on concrete courts at Indian Wells, California, was going strongly in the third, on the clay of Monte Carlo last month, before meeting Hrbaty in the quarter-finals. Hrbaty recovered after conceding the opening set and won in three, going on to lose to Cedric Pioline in the final.
Conscious of Hrbaty's resilience, Corretja endeavoured to offer him few opportunities after breaking for 3-1 in the first set, serving his way out of trouble at 30-40 in the next game. The concluding point of the set was an entertaining variation from the powerful stroke-making, the players exchanging drop-shots before Corretja produced a winning lob to secure the set after 28 minutes.
There was another example of finesse in the fourth game of the second set, Corretja playing a backhand volley to win the closing point after Hrbaty returned a lob with a shot between his legs.
Corretja faced the only break points of the set in the eighth game. He saved the first with a backhand down the line, and Hrbaty netted a backhand on the second.
Although Corretja took a 3-1 lead in the tie-break with an impressive forehand return, Hrbaty fought his way back to 4-4 and 5-5 before Corretja primed himself with an ace for 6-5. The Spaniard did not have to serve again. On the final point, Hrbaty hit both of his serves long.
Corretja has a 9-1 record in tie-breaks this year. "I've had to focus on that," he said. "Sometimes they put you in a match, and sometimes they let you finish."
Agassi had already left Italy and is not destined for next week's Masters Series event in Hamburg. He has decided to rest from playing matches and work on his physical fitness in the hope of being fresh for the defence of the French Open title a fortnight hence.
Asked if he would put the Rome and Hamburg tournaments back-to-back if he had to make the calendar for the ATP Tour, Agassi said: "Well, I am making my calendar."
He added: "Everybody's in a different position. If I was in a the position to make the best decision on behalf of the game of tennis I would have to take a lot of things into consideration and I'm not qualified or informed enough at this point just to say it should be a different way. I know that it's a lot of tennis, especially this year with the Davis Cup and the Olympics, and everything's been shortened.
"I think it gets more difficult every year, regardless of how well or not well you're doing. The players get better. It's another year of the toll being taken on you physically and mentally. But I have to say in some respects you can always count on a few things getting easier, and those vary.
"In this case, being the defending champion in Paris is nothing short of an honour, and stepping out there will be another opportunity to take in such a wonderful accomplishment and experience. That will be certainly motivating in itself."
Greg Rusedski will also miss the Hamburg event in the hope of recovering from shoulder and neck problems in time for the French Open. Rusedski, currently at No 15 in the ATP Tour Entry System, will get zero points for Hamburg and may be too low to be seeded in Paris.