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Agassi Plays Card Right

French Open: He gets by wild-card entry after trailing two sets to love and facing two break points at 1-3 in fifth set.

June 04, 2002|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — The five sets that changed Andre Agassi's life three years ago are still working, displaying a remarkable shelf life, almost becoming something of a security blanket at the French Open.

They just weren't any five sets. Agassi lost the first two in the 1999 final to Andrei Medvedev here and won the last three. It was the third time Agassi had rallied from a two-sets-to-love deficit, winning the only Grand Slam tournament title that had eluded him.

Since then Medvedev has gone the other way, never reaching another final. He is all but retired in Monte Carlo, working on real estate deals in his native Ukraine.

Thus, those five sets turned Andre the tennis player into Andre the icon.

"It's Agassi," said Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu. "This is not somebody else."

Mathieu should know, after following Medvedev's path Monday at the French Open. He took the first two sets and dropped the last three, as the fourth-seeded Agassi won, 4-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3. As in Agassi-Medvedev, there were brief rain delays. And Agassi landed in an even more precarious predicament against the 20-year-old wild-card entrant from France than he had against Medvedev, falling behind a service break in the fifth.

It wasn't quite "Groundhog Day," but close enough.

"I certainly dug a big hole for myself," said Agassi, who won the fourth-round match in 3 hours 1 minute.

"A lot had to do with the way he was playing. But down two sets and a break, I mean, the good news is, it can't get any worse."

Well ...

It almost did. Trailing, 1-3, in the fifth, Agassi faced two break points, saving one with a smash and the other with a forehand winner.

"I could not do anything," Mathieu said. "He played great shots on those two points."

From then on, it was all Agassi, as he won the final five games, losing only four points in the final four. At 5-3, Agassi held at love, finishing it off with a nice touch shot, flicking a backhand half-volley. You get a sense of Agassi's plight in this statistic: eight drop shots won. He pulled a reluctant Mathieu forward, a clever strategy on several levels, pulling him up from behind the baseline and keeping him off-balance.

"You can be assured if I'm hitting a lot of drop shots, there's a lot not feeling great out there," Agassi said. "A lot has to kind of go awry for me to feel like that's something to throw into the equation."

In the quarterfinals Wednesday, Agassi will play No. 11 Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain in their first meeting. Ferrero beat Gaston Gaudio of Argentina in an erratic fourth-round match, 6-7 (3), 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-4, in 3 hours 50 minutes. They combined for 186 unforced errors, and Ferrero said his injured right ankle is about 80%.

For French supporters, the program wasn't a total loss. Frenchman Sebastien Grosjean, seeded 10th, defeated Xavier Malisse of Belgium, 6-2, 7-5, 6-3, in another fourth-round match. Grosjean, who reached the semifinals here last year, will play No. 2 Marat Safin of Russia. Safin grew frustrated, tossing his racket--what else is new?--and defeated wild card Arnaud Di Pasquale of France, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2.

The departure of two French wild cards might have wounded local pride, but the loss of Agassi and Safin would have severely damaged the star quality of this event, which took a hit when No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt of Australia and two-time defending champion Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil lost Sunday.

For the 20-year-old Mathieu, the lack of big-match experience eventually caught him for good in the fifth set.

"I had pressure because, at 20 years old, on center court, completely full, for a French player in the French Open," he said. "I was able to deal with it, so I'm happy with that. It gave me strength. But in the third set, I lacked experience. In the fifth set, also, at the important time of the match. He was used to the situation. That's what made the difference.

"When [Agassi] wants to win a specific point, he wins it. He lived the situation 200 times already before, and for me it was the first time."

Thus, another 20-year-old was gone. Agassi has enjoyed, or at least indulged, talk about the old Andre, the once-callow youth. The year he lost in the French final, in 1990, he got here the day before the tournament started and fell behind a set and a break against Canadian Martin Wostenholme in the first round.

"I definitely didn't feel I gave myself the best shot possible," Agassi said. "Who knows? Maybe if I was doing that then, I'd be sitting on my couch right now back home watching this tournament. Every time I think about the things I could have done differently, I take a lot of pleasure in the fact that I'm still here, doing things the way I want."

*

There was a report that former Australian Davis Cup captain John Newcombe had told ABC radio that two-time U.S. Open winner Patrick Rafter was contemplating a return later this year, with an eye on the Australian Open in January.

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