Ferrero on top of the world

US Open: Spaniard who conquered Paris despatches America's favourite to lay claim to New York

Juan Carlos Ferrero, the master of slow clay courts, could hardly have chosen a more fitting moment to prove his right to supplant Andre Agassi as the world No 1 than to defeat the 33-year-old Las Vegan on his favourite rubberised concrete in Arthur Ashe Stadium yesterday.

The 23-year-old Spaniard, who won his first grand slam title on clay at the French Open in June, will round off a splendid summer today if he is able to win the United States Open final against Andy Roddick, the big-serving American.

Roddick, the fourth seed, recovered from two sets down and saved a match point in the third set in defeating the Argentian David Nalbandian, 6-7 3-6 7-6 6-1 6-3 after three hours and 31 minutes.

Nalbandian, who eliminated Roger Federer, the Wimbledon champion, in the fourth round, was unfortunate with one or two line calls. But Roddick, who hit a personal best 38 aces, grew stronger towards the end of the contest, and wore his opponent down.

Ferrero's victory against Agassi, 6-4 6-3 3-6 6-4, raised the question of whether Agassi, who has won major titles on every surface, would decide to follow Pete Sampras into retirement. Agassi answered in the style of a toned-down Arnold Schwarz- enegger, saying: "Something will have to change drastically for me not to be back."

He added: "I don't make decisions from an emotional standpoint. I put myself in a position to give myself a look at the basket. I guess there's some positives there. I've just got to go back to work."

Agassi, whose serve was a handicap in the first two and a half sets, acknowledged that Ferrero "was just taking care of business better than I was". He added that Ferrero was not as good as he is on clay, "but he was better than me."

Ferrero, his business unfinished, kept his exuberance in check. "I worked very hard to be No 1," he said, "and I'm going to keep working hard to continue to be No 1." He is only the second Spaniard to top the computer rankings, following Carlos Moya's two-week reign in 1999.

The Spaniard, who brought his array of gound-strokes into Arthur Ashe Stadium for the first time, broke Agassi twice to lead 5-2 in the opening set, serving with pace and accuracy to frustrate Agassi's attempt to groove his returns. Serving for the set, Ferrero squandered the first set point at 40-30 by feeding his opponent a drop-shot. A backhand drive gained Agassi his first opportunity to break, and he converted.

Agassi won 10 of the next 11 points before Ferrero asserted himself to save two break points, going on to secure the set on his third set point with a forehand drive after 38 minutes.

As with the first set, Ferrero cracked Agassi's serve in the opening game of the second, the Spaniard's forehand clipping the net cord before passing Agassi down the line. Agassi recovered to 3-3 when Ferrero missed a backhand at 30-40. After winning the opening two points of the seventh game, Agassi double-faulted twice and then hit a backhand long, Ferrero returning a second serve to convert for 4-3.

The American's serve continued to let him down. He double-faulted for the sixth time in the ninth game after saving three set points and battling through eight deuces. After 77 minutes, Agassi was two sets down.

It was then that Agassi lifted his game and gave his supporters scope for optimism by taking the third set. The Las Vegan worked hard for the first opening, Ferrero playing a backhand half-volley wide at 1-1, 0-30. Ferrero salvaged the break point with a forehand down the line.

That third game will be remembered for Ferrero's skill and athleticism at 15-15, when he returned an Agassi lob through his legs and then turned and sprinted to counter an Agassi volley by stretching to hit a forehand cross-court winner. The crowd roared in approval as Ferrero raised his arms in triumph.

Although Agassi was in trouble in the sixth game, saving two break points before holding with his tenth ace, he broke for 4-3 with a forehand drive, and then held for 5-3. Ferrero, tightening and showing signs of frustration, hit two shots long to lose the set as Agassi appeared to gain a second wind after two hours on court.

With Agassi leading 2-1 in the fourth set, Ferrero called for the trainer, Doug Spreen, to replace the strapping he was wearing on both thighs. He needed all the support he could get as Agassi remained obdurate, saving three break points in the seventh game.

Ferrero persisted, holding to love for 4-4 and then capitalising on Agassi's errors to break to love. Serving for the match at 5-4, Ferrero had to save three break points before secuing the first match point after two hours and 36 minutes, Agassi hitting a forehand wide.