A difference of 60 or 70 places in the world rankings can be a chasm in terms of class, as Andy Murray and Tim Henman discovered in the second round of the US Open here yesterday. Murray, No 19, won with plenty to spare against Alessio Di Mauro, No 94, while Henman, No 62, was never in serious contention against Roger Federer, the best player on the planet.
Even though Murray has made great progress in the subsequent 18 months, it was hard to comprehend how he could have won just three games against Di Mauro on their only previous meeting in March last year. The 29-year-old Italian, a clay-court specialist, was hopelessly outclassed as Murray won 6-0, 6-1, 6-1 in an hour and 14 minutes.
Murray hardly put a foot wrong. He chased every ball, put his opponent under constant pressure and went for winners whenever the opportunity arose. It was the 19-year-old Scot's easiest win in a Grand Slam tournament, though it might not have been the best preparation for his next match, against the hard-hitting No 10 seed, Chile's Fernando Gonzalez.
Henman had hoped to restore some respectability after his crushing defeat to Federer at the same stage of Wimbledon nine weeks ago, when he won just six games. He again lost in straight sets, 6-3, 6-4, 7-5, but could take some heart from his display, particularly in the latter stages.
However, as he acknowledged afterwards, you can ill afford to lose the first three games against Federer. Henman still has one of the best records against him, having won six and lost six, but this was his fifth defeat in succession.
You sensed that the defending champion hardly moved out of second gear, his relaxed mood underlined by an extraordinary shot in the third set. A firm volley to the baseline caught Federer off balance, but he played the ball from between his legs and so surprised Henman that his weak response enabled the Swiss to hit a clean winner.
Henman, whose back problem has flared up again this summer, admitted that his year "could not have been much worse in some respects" but said he intended to play on.
Federer and Henman had entered Arthur Ashe Stadium just 10 hours after Andre Agassi left it following one of the most extraordinary matches of his 21-year career. Two days after Agassi had needed a 10-minute cortisone injection deep into his spine after his failing back had left him barely able to walk following his previous match, the 36-year-old American beat 21-year-old Marcos Baghdatis, one of the game's most exciting young talents, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 5-7, 7-5.
Agassi, whose back problems had restricted him to 16 matches in the previous 12 months, had chosen this as his last tournament and had achieved his main goal of winning here one more time by beating Andrei Pavel in the first round.
Most observers expected an appropriate losing farewell against Baghdatis, an entertainer whose dashing style is sometimes compared to Agassi's. However the Cypriot, who injured his left wrist in an early fall, was a bundle of nerves as he made 40 unforced errors to Agassi's 14 in losing the first two sets.
However, Baghdatis gradually started to test his opponent's legs, and two killer drop shots helped secure the only break of the third set. Nevertheless, the contest seemed over when Agassi went 4-0 up in the fourth, only for a chest-thumping Baghdatis to fight back and take the set 7-5.
The world No 8 promptly broke Agassi in the first game of the fifth set but, crucially, had to call for the trainer as his leg muscles started to seize up. Agassi broke back immediately and in a tumultuous 24-point game at 4-4, Baghdatis fell to the ground with cramp.
Sometimes barely able to run, the Australian Open finalist still managed to pummel winners past Agassi, who did not know whether to go for his shots or keep the ball in play.
Four times, Baghdatis was within a point of serving for the match. The Cypriot, who said the cramp had been caused by the stress of the occasion, saved one match point but Agassi then cleverly moved him around the court and converted his second match point after three hours and 45 minutes entertainment.
"In most cases I prefer to live without the drama," Agassi said. "But it just wouldn't seem right here."
The draw says his next opponent is "B Becker (Germany)". Benjamin Becker, who is not related to Boris, is a 25-year-old qualifier ranked No 112 in the world. Agassi refuses to look beyond this match, though Andy Roddick could lie in wait in the last 16. "These last two matches have taken all of me," Agassi said. "You have to treat each match with great respect."Reuse content