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COMMENTARY

He's Still Making His Marquee Mark

June 29, 2003|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

WIMBLEDON, England — He is 33 years old in a sport that often grinds away the joints by age 26. He is either a medical miracle or a mental one. Maybe both.

Andre Agassi is still with us, even back at No. 1 in the world. He is bigger than life and more important than ever to men's tennis. He is, possibly, as its current main marquee attraction, carrying the sport on his regular-size shoulders.

When he stepped onto Centre Court here Saturday, the place was abuzz with the expectation that he would, as always, squeeze every drop out of his heart and soul to be entertaining, competitive and a winner. Such is the pedestal of marquee sports stars.

When he began his third-round match against Younes El Aynaoui of Morocco, California was deep asleep at 5 a.m. PDT and Wimbledon was out in force, properly excited and properly dressed for the occasion. The only other sporting show that attracts this many coats and ties and nylon stockings is the Westminster Kennel Club's.

By the time Agassi had completed his 5-7, 6-4, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (4) win over El Aynaoui, it was 3 hours 13 minutes later and California was on its second cup of coffee. It was a victory both compelling and dramatic, and not the least bit one-sided. Clearly, Agassi did not have El Aynaoui for breakfast at Wimbledon.

Nor is he likely to be able to gobble up his next opponent, Mark Philippoussis, who is always dangerous on Wimbledon's lightning surface with a serve that would leave dents in the side of a tank. His nickname, after all, is "Scud."

So close was the Agassi-El Aynaoui match that, until Agassi slapped a cross-court forehand into an open court to end the second tiebreaker, it seemed destined to go five sets.

Each player had broken the other's serve only once. Both breaks came late in sets. Agassi won 160 points and El Aynaoui 145, certainly not domination. Agassi won 107 service points, Al Aynaoui 108. The statistic sheet looked like a mirror.

In his news conference afterward, Agassi jokingly pointed to what may have been his only slight edge. Referring to the fact that El Aynaoui, 31, has two children to Agassi's one, Agassi said, "There aren't too many guys I play that get less sleep than I do. Younes is probably one of those guys."

There wasn't a sense of inevitability about the winner until late in the fourth-set tiebreaker, when Agassi watched El Aynaoui's forehand settle into the net and the Moroccan's racket drifted softly into the crowd. Suddenly, the tiebreaker score was 5-4 and Agassi had two serves. Even El Aynaoui knew the end was at hand, throwing up his figurative white flag by gently tossing his racket in a high and soft loop toward the stands.

Agassi got to match point with a 111-mph service winner and then won it with a serve that opened up the court for his finishing forehand crusher. Minutes before, Agassi had been on the ropes, serving at 5-6 and love-40. With typical Agassi jaw-set resolve, he saved those three set points, any of which would have sent it to a fifth set.

"I played five good points in a row ... at a perfect time," Agassi said.

When it was over, Agassi and El Aynaoui, seeded 25 spots below Agassi's No. 2 and now 0-5 in matches against him, chatted for much longer than normal as they shook hands at the net.

"I just basically told him that it's always a joy playing against him," Agassi said. "He's a great professional and even a better person. I have a lot of respect for what he's still doing, how he's managed to push his game even higher so late in his career with children. He's always been a class act. I think he's great for the game."

As is Agassi, who, in the current climate of men's tennis, might be much more than that. He might be the game.

*

Match Makers

Andre Agassi played his 1,000th pro match two weeks ago at the Queen's Club tournament. A look at the match victory leaders in the Open era:

Player Wins-Losses Total

1. Jimmy Connors (U.S)... 1,155-270 1,425

2. Ivan Lendl (Czech Republic)... 1,068-242 1,310

3. Guillermo Vilas (Argentina) ...940-286 1,226

4. John McEnroe (U.S.)... 881-198 1,079

5. Stefan Edberg (Sweden)... 806-270 1,076

6. Andre Agassi (U.S.)... 771-235 1,006

7. Ilie Nastase (Romania)...722-287 1,009

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