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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Any Color Medal Would Serve Nicely, According to Agassi

Tennis: He beats India's Paes, setting up match for gold with Spain's Bruguera.

August 02, 1996|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — With Andre Agassi, you get the sacred and the profane.

There's the occasional profane outburst, as he demonstrated by drawing a point penalty in a quarterfinal match a few days ago.

And then there is the sanctity of a medal. He will win the gold or the silver Saturday when he faces former French Open champion Sergi Bruguera in the Olympic final after a not-so-easy 7-6 (7-5), 6-3 semifinal victory Thursday over India's Leander Paes, the world's 127th-ranked player.

None of this second-place-is-for-losers stuff for Agassi.

"If silver is a disappointment, you're [a jerk]. That's ridiculous," said Agassi, who has put together a string of victories in what has been a distressing season. "A silver medal is as great a thing as an athlete can hope to achieve. Every athlete should hope to win one. You go out to win, to pour your heart and soul into it. Certainly gold is a greater accomplishment, but a silver is a wonderful thing.

"I can't put words on what it will mean to see the number of U.S. medals go up and know you're a part of it."

As for whether a medal of any metal is tarnished because only three of the world's top-10 players entered the tournament, "I'll let you feel my medal tomorrow," Agassi said. "You can tell me how it feels."

Spain's Bruguera, the French Open winner in 1993 and '94, who has battled injuries and fallen to No. 69 in the rankings, also needed a first-set tiebreaker to get past Brazil's Fernando Meligeni, beating him, 7-6 (11-9), 6-2, in the day's first match, which was delayed 1 1/2 hours because of rain.

Bruguera reacted to his victory with unusual emotion, clenching his fists and falling to his back on the court.

Agassi, looking ahead to the gold-medal match, said he is thankful for the hard-court surface at Stone Mountain Tennis Center.

"He's beaten me on clay, but I've gotten him on hard courts," Agassi said. "If we were on clay, I'd be stressing a little bit. . . . He's a guy who's been at the top, won slams, so at any time he can play that kind of tennis.

"To me, this is a huge match on Saturday. It's as big a match as playing in a Grand Slam final, in my career, from here on in."

In the other matches Thursday before 11,621, Conchita Martinez and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario of Spain won the bronze in women's doubles, defeating Brenda Schultz-McCarthy and Manon Bollegraf of the Netherlands, 6-1, 6-3.

Sanchez Vicario plays Lindsay Davenport, a Newport Beach resident, in the women's final today.

In the men's doubles bronze-medal match, Marc-Kevin Goellner and David Prinosil of Germany defeated Jacco Eltingh and Paul Haarhuis of the Netherlands, 6-2, 7-5.

There were a few moments Thursday when it seemed as if Agassi might be putting himself in contention for a bronze. He had to save two set points in the first set before winning the tiebreaker and finishing off Paes in the second by breaking serve in the eighth game and then serving for the match.

"It got pretty tight there in the first set. It could have gone either way," Agassi said.

With Agassi serving at 5-6 in the first, Paes hit a leaping backhand overhead for double break point. But Paes sailed a service return long to waste one set point, then hit a volley just wide to lose the other.

"My big chance was there in the first set," Paes said. "If I won that set, who knows? But he came back in the tiebreaker and the second set."

Agassi won the tiebreaker on the strength of his forehand passing shots, then eased into a higher gear in the second set, winning the seventh game with two aces and two service winners and breaking Paes in the eighth for a 5-3 lead, when Paes hit a volley out. Paes hit a cross-court forehand wide on match point.

Like Agassi, whose father was a boxer for the Iranian Olympic team in 1948 and '52, Paes also has an Olympic bloodline. His father played on India's bronze-medal winning field hockey team in 1972 and his mother was captain of India's basketball team that year.

Winning the bronze by beating Meligeni on Saturday would mean "I'll have one of my own," said Paes, who also will be carrying a banner for India.

"We haven't won a medal other than [field] hockey for nearly 50 years," he said. "I will give it everything I have."

Though other elite players stayed away from the Olympics because of injuries or disinterest, Agassi has used the tournament to try to hone his game after a season in which he has won only once, at Key Biscayne, Fla.

Not only has he not attended any other Olympic events, but "I haven't made it into town," he said. "It's been my focus to win these matches, prepare myself. When things haven't been going so well, and then they start to, you don't want to change anything. Certainly this could send me into a new groove. . . . Having won five matches here, I feel as good as when I got on my last roll.

"I'm feeling pretty good, pretty confident. I'm playing aggressively when I should, and my discipline has improved this week. I'm breaking down people at the baseline again. I see some strides."

Asked about his rather courtly behavior during Thursday's match--despite some questionable calls, Agassi gave a small laugh.

"You never go out planning to get [upset] and handle yourself in a way that's not professional," he said. "I'm just a moody kind of guy, really."

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