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Agassi Passes Muster

U.S. Open: He reaches semifinals with four-set victory in match between not best of friends.

September 05, 1996|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Wednesday night's U.S. Open match between Andre Agassi and Thomas Muster was, the players assured everyone, only a tennis match and not a personal vendetta. Nevertheless, the quarterfinal was as brutal as if blood had been spilled.

Whatever bruised feelings that exist between the two players will not be healed by Agassi's 6-2, 7-5, 4-6, 6-2 victory.

After two days of denying any feud and downplaying the military imagery, the players at last skirmished on court, pounding away from the baseline.

"It was just a war," Agassi acknowledged later.

In another quarterfinal, second-seeded Michael Chang defeated unseeded Javier Sanchez of Spain, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (7-2), 6-3, and reached the Open semifinals for the first time since 1992.

There was little beauty or subtlety in the night match. Muster ran from alley to alley, retrieving Agassi's well-placed shots. Agassi played from inside the baseline and pushed Muster well back.

There were 32 break points in the match and 16 service breaks, 10 by Agassi.

After fighting through two tough sets, Muster, the 1995 French Open champion, rallied briefly to capture the third set.

The proceedings were livened up early in the fourth set when the mist hanging in the stadium was somehow construed as precipitation and a five-minute rain delay was called.

The brief rest was to Agassi's liking and he broke Muster's service when play resumed. Agassi broke again in the eighth game to win the match.

Muster said that the match "wasn't a war," but it's difficult to see how the behavior of Agassi's friends, yelling loudly from a courtside box, would not add to the animosity.

"The Agassi fan club is not the nicest, it's not a secret. I don't care," Muster said. "They comment on every shot while I am playing. They were behaving like a bunch of idiots. It's nothing new."

The bad blood between the two has been spurting from two veins. First was Muster's perception that Agassi had belittled Muster's ascension to No. 1 earlier this year.

Agassi offered the view held by many that Muster benefited from his massive dose of points gained on clay and that Muster's becoming No. 1 was less an indicator that he was the best player in the world and more an opportunistic use of the computer.

Agassi smoothed over the situation with Muster when they spoke at the tournament in Monte Carlo by invoking the athlete's multipurpose excuse: "I was misquoted."

The larger issue between them is Brad Gilbert, Agassi's controversial and confrontational coach. Muster said as long as Gilbert is around and influencing Agassi, there will be problems.

"Gilbert doesn't like anybody; that's not a secret," Muster said. "Gilbert never liked me; that's not a secret, either. I think Andre is the same. That's always been his problem. If you have somebody talking to you like a radio all day, you must get nuts."

Gilbert was a vocal presence in Agassi's box Wednesday night.

Earlier in the day, Austrian player Judith Wiesner commented on the probability of a pro-Agassi crowd, saying, 'It'll be 80,000 to 1."

Muster was not without his fans. The Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, was in a courtside box, cheering for her pal. Muster met Fergie earlier this year when he was flying to a tournament in Qatar. The two were briefly linked romantically, but each claimed they were "just friends."

It was odd, though, that Fergie was seated next to Nike founder Phil Knight, a man firmly planted in the Agassi camp.

Even before the tournament started, Agassi and Muster were antagonists, pitted in the U.S. Open draw-redraw debacle that suspiciously aided American players at the expense of Europeans. For the first time since the computer ranking system was put in place, Open officials chose to disregard rankings and seed the tournament according to a player's proficiency on hard courts.

By the new formula, Muster was demoted from No. 2 to No. 3. This exacerbated his usual suspiciousness. Muster, always ready to believe a conspiracy theory in which he is persecuted, was now given ample ammunition should he choose to blame someone for his failure here.

Agassi, conversely, was upgraded markedly, from No. 9 to No. 6, which moved him to the bottom of the draw and out of Pete Sampras'--and harm's--way.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Featured Matches

Today's featured matches at the U.S. Open:

DAY SESSION

Beginning 8 a.m. PDT

STADIUM COURT

* Men--No. 1 Pete Sampras vs. Alex Corretja.

NIGHT SESSION

Beginning 4:30 p.m. PDT

STADIUM COURT

* Men--No. 4 Goran Ivanisevic vs. Stefan Edberg.

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