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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Agassi's Down on Game, but Still High on Drama

Tennis: He rallies in third set to beat Ferreira and advance to semifinals. Washington is eliminated.

July 31, 1996|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — They riot because they want to see Andre Agassi. They clamor for glamour. The Olympic tennis fans at Stone Mountain Park know how to get their money's worth: Watch the highly erratic Agassi dig himself deep into a pit, pile break points on top of himself, then growl and snap and slash his way out with precision ground strokes.

Agassi may not be worth a riot but he's worth watching. The down-on-his-game tennis player is clawing his way to the medal rounds and landed in the semifinals by virtue of his 7-5, 4-6, 7-5 victory over South African Wayne Ferreira on Tuesday.

The top-seeded Agassi will play Leander Paes of India, a wild-card entrant, in the semifinals. Paes was the surprise winner Tuesday over 14th-seeded Renzo Furlan of Italy, 6-1, 7-5.

Spain's Sergei Bruguera defeated MaliVai Washington in another quarterfinal match, 7-6 (10-8) 4-6, 7-5. Bruguera will play Fernando Meligeni of Brazil, who defeated Andrei Olhovskiy of Russia, 7-5, 6-3.

Agassi has suffered through a dismal season but still commands attention. The center court crowd had raucously protested the move of an Agassi-Washington doubles match to another court last Sunday, a tennis tempest that prompted the tournament referee to reschedule the match.

The 16,010 fans at Tuesday's match were not only fans of any player from the United States but also savvy enough to know that with only three of the top 10 players entered here, only the seventh-ranked Agassi remains to dust the Olympic tournament with the glitter of the professional tour.

It was offered in full measure. Agassi's sometimes brilliant shots mixed with his alarming stretches of lassitude and his foul language that continues to be audible to everyone at courtside but the chair umpire.

The 10th-ranked Ferreira represented the tour's rank and file. The drama surrounding the strawberry blond Ferreira at these hot, hot courts is whether, under the relentless sun, his freckles will coalesce into a united brown blob.

Something interesting had to exist between the lines for a match that should have been a bigger blowout than it was. Going into it, Ferreira had never beaten Agassi in five attempts. In Tuesday's match, Ferreira won a set for the first time.

Leave it to Agassi to oblige the fans by providing the drama necessary to keep the fans in their seats in uncomfortable conditions of 90 degrees and 77% humidity.

Agassi won the first set, then lost interest, his specialty this season. The former No. 1 is ranked No. 7 and Tuesday's victory gave him his first three-match winning streak in four months. He has won only one title this year and admits to having lost confidence in his game--a game that needs ego and confidence to make it work.

Agassi's serves went limp and Ferreira's serving took off. He had 22 aces in the match and got in 98% of his second serves but inexplicably declined to control the net. Agassi ventured to the net more than Ferreira.

Ferreira broke in the third game of the second set and Agassi--noted for his return of service--put up only token resistance the rest of the set.

Agassi jazzed up the proceedings with a profane outburst after the first game of the second set. He was warned, then issued a point penalty.

Ferreira thought Agassi had gone too far well before the penalty was issued and that the umpire had not gone far enough.

"I honestly believe he should be kicked off the court for the things he was saying," Ferreira said. "They were pretty rude and actually the worst I've ever heard anybody say. I'm surprised the umpires took it so lightly. If I was sitting in the chair, I probably would have done something different."

Agassi laughed after hearing Ferreira had said he should have been defaulted.

"It was about the only way he was going to beat me," Agassi said.

Agassi fed on the controversy and the crowd's unqualified support. Fans chanted, "Andre! Andre!" at each change-over and the inevitable U-S-A was trotted out to punctuate every game Agassi won.

Agassi managed to turn a positive into a negative at the start of the third set, after Ferreira broke to open the set.

"I was up, love-40, the umpire probably missed a dozen calls the whole match," Agassi said. "And that game, especially. Then it just keeps getting worse. I needed something to turn it around. I got upset and stayed focused and gave myself a chance to win."

Agassi was serving at 3-5 to stay in the match and the moment was reminiscent of his comeback against Andrea Gaudenzi in his first match here. Agassi was trailing, 2-6, 0-3 and came back to win.

He held then, after having been on the court for nearly two hours, and jogged to the baseline after the change-over. He broke to draw even at 5-5 and held, then broke again to take the match.

"I came here with the hopes to win a gold and certainly it takes matches like this to get the confidence back to a place where I can pretty much do it all," he said. "It's a question of focus and confidence at the right points. I think that's the next step for me to really get back where I feel like I can be."

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