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Agassi's Hot Start Paves Way to Final

Men: He defeats Rafter in Ericsson Open and will go for third title of the year against Gambill.

April 01, 2001|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — After 17 minutes of close observation, it appeared as though Patrick Rafter's game had already boarded a plane to South America for Australia's Davis Cup match against Brazil this week at Florianapolis.

Andre Agassi, as we know, has no such concerns. Agassi doesn't play Davis Cup anymore, and even if he did, the United States is already out this year. Still, though world domination will have to wait for 2002, the American men remain content to monopolize the most important tournaments this year.

Agassi beat Rafter, 6-0, 6-7 (2), 6-2, in Saturday's semifinals of the Ericsson Open, giving him a 10-match winning streak. He will face Jan-Michael Gambill in today's final, meaning an American will have won the first three big-ticket events of 2001.

The Australian Open? Agassi.

Indian Wells? Agassi.

The last player to complete the trio of titles--Melbourne, Indian Wells and Miami--was another American, Pete Sampras, in 1994. Agassi came close to duplicating that feat a year later, winning at the Australian Open and Miami and reaching the Indian Wells final.

"It means a lot to American tennis to have young players playing so well like Jan-Mike," Agassi said. "For me, it's great before the match and after the match. But during the match, there's no nationality."

With all of the ATP's emphasis on the "New Balls, Please" posse, the guy who is about to turn 31, Agassi, is off to the best start of his career, 21-2, in 2001. It's little wonder that Rafter, who has not been playing poorly himself, was made to look pedestrian in the first set.

Agassi broke his serve three times--passing Rafter at will--and won the opening set in 17 minutes. Rafter has been shut out in a set only six times in his career, and not since 1998.

"He was on fire at the beginning," Rafter said. "He started really well, didn't let me get into the match and I probably started a little bit flat, trying to work my way back into it. He never opened up the gates there at all in the first set."

Said Agassi: "A 6-0 set means a lot more when you are playing a baseliner, you are having a lot of baseline rallies. With Pat, I was on his serve, I had some great shots to break. All he needs to do is get a rhythm going on his serve and he can go through an hour stretch where I don't even have a sniff at it."

Rafter did work his way into the second set, lifting his game, and Agassi was hard-pressed to maintain his high level of shot-making. Though it went three sets, it was lacking the high drama and importance of their last two matches. Rafter beat Agassi in the Wimbledon semifinals last year in five scintillating sets, and Agassi came back and defeated a drained, cramping Rafter in five sets in the Australian Open semifinals in January.

After Rafter won the second-set tiebreaker, 7-2, Agassi promptly halted his momentum in the third, breaking him in the second game when Rafter double-faulted.

And, thus, Agassi was off to the final against Gambill. Gambill has made a name for himself recently. He defeated top-ranked Gustavo Kuerten at Indian Wells, and survived 11 match points through the last few weeks at various events.

"I'll feel good if I give him a few more opportunities to defend some match points," Agassi said. "I hope to give him a few more."

Ericsson Open

MEN'S FINAL

* Who: Andre Agassi vs. Jan-Michael Gambill

* When: Today, 9:30 a.m. PDT

* TV: Channel 2

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