Agassi the showman on course for title hat-trick

By John Roberts,Florida
Thursday 27 March 2003 01:00
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A lot of Grand Slam pocket-picking and soul-searching may be at work in the tennis world, but the 32-year-old Andre Agassi continues to pack in the crowds with his boundless energy, bountiful game and bows to the audience.

Butch Buchholz, founder and chairman of the Nasdaq-100 Open here, figuratively uses a graph of Agassi's career to trace the growth of the Key Biscayne event. "Andre's been coming here for 17 years," Buchholz reminded us. "Like the tournament, he's had he's ups and downs, but we're both still going strong."

The Las Vegas showman is on course for a hat-trick of Nasdaq titles (a sixth in total), and spectators are waiting in anticipation for Agassi's quarter-final match against Morocco's Younes El Aynaoui, whose marathon contest against Andy Roddick at the Australian Open in January is still the talk of the game.

If Agassi is as sharp as he was in defeating Australia's Mark Philippoussis, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, in the fourth round on Tuesday night, El Aynaoui will need all his athleticism and stamina to make a serious challenge. The tall 31-year-old from Rabat has been unable to master Agassi in their three previous matches, losing to him in straight sets at the 1995 French Open and the 1999 Paris Masters, but pushing him to three sets in Cincinnati last year.

Then again, the big-serving Philippoussis has managed to beat Agassi only once in seven matches, and that was after two tie-breaks in their opening encounter in Indian Wells in 1997. Philippoussis, a finalist at the United States Open in 1998, has had to overcome dreadful injury problems since then, and it was encouraging to see him play with such confidence for the first set and a half against Agassi here, having been given a wild card.

During the remainder of the match, a tiring Philippoussis struggled to keep pace with Agassi, who had found his range and relentlessly dictated the rallies. "I thought the edge came off [Mark's] game," Agassi said. "He was late to some of his shots, missed his first serves. That's key. If he's not in position, he swings too big. It's similar to what I feel much of the time when I'm not moving well."

Philippoussis agreed that in the second set he "just let it get away from me and got a little frustrated." None the less, he had reason to be pleased with his progress. "I've never been the type to doubt myself and my ability," Philippoussis said. "I'm getting physically fitter every match. I'm playing my game and being positive." That bodes well for Wimbledon.

It remains to be seen if Robbie Ginepri developes into one of the successor's to Agassi and Pete Sampras at the top of the game, but the 20-year-old from up the highway in Fort Lauderdale has impressed the crowds here during the past few days. Ginepri came within two points of becoming the first wild card to reach the semi-finals since Jimmy Connors in 1987.

In the end, the experience of Carlos Moya prevailed as the Spanish fifth seed and former world No 1 edged to a 6-7, 6-3, 7-6 win in the quarter-finals, taking the final set tie-break, 7-4, after Ginepri had led, 4-2. Though disappointed, Ginepri can look foreward to moving into the top 50 next week.

The simmering resentment between Jennifer Capriati and Meghann Shaughnessy added spice to the women's quarter-finals. Shaughnessy replaced Capriati in the United States Federation Cup team after the captain, Billie Jean King, objected to Capriati taking her father along to coach her.

Shaughnessy accounted for Venus Williams, the world No 2, in the fourth round, and made life difficult for Capriati before the sixth seed prevailed, 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, after two hours and 34 minutes of spirited rallies and spectacular errors on both sides of the court.

Capriati, runner-up for the past two years, will play either Justine Henin-Hardenne, the Belgian fourth seed, or the American Chanda Rubin, in the semi-finals.

In the women's semi-finals today, Serena Williams, the defending champion and world No 1, plays Kim Clijsters, the world No 3. Clijsters, who has won only one of their seven previous matches, at the WTA Championships last November, defeated a disappointing Jelena Dokic, of Yugoslavia, 6-2, 6-0, in impressive style in the quarter-finals.

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