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Swiss Doesn't Get Stuck in Neutral Against Agassi

Federer turns on jets to steal key game in 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 win at Indian Wells. He faces Henman in final.

March 21, 2004|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

The game was won. And then it wasn't.

Andre Agassi should have been sitting in his chair during the changeover, thinking about breaking Roger Federer's serve to get into the final. But he watched Federer whip around the court, chasing down not one but two Agassi volleys, and pickpocketing the point with a searing forehand passing shot.

The No. 1-ranked Federer, of Switzerland, lifted that game, and won the final eight points of their semifinal Saturday, defeating No. 5-seeded Agassi, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, in the Pacific Life Open. The Artful Roger? His stealth in the match-turning ninth game of the third set had the veteran Agassi dazed and bemused.

"That's the one thing that makes him a great player, is that he sort of strikes so quickly, you never know," Agassi said. "He can play just a few minutes of great tennis and that's enough to get himself over the hurdle."

There was no such drama later in the second semifinal. Even the most routine victories usually feature a Tim Henman Moment, a brief wobble of concern. But Henman, of Great Britain, had probably his easiest path to a Masters Series final, defeating Irakli Labadze of Georgia, 6-3, 6-2, in 62 minutes in the oven-baked Indian Wells Tennis Garden. This was Labadze's first ATP semifinal.

Today might be the rare time when a No. 1-seeded player, Federer, is not favored against a No. 9, Henman. The final will be the eighth meeting between them, and Henman leads the series, 6-1. The only time Federer won was two years ago in Miami when Henman retired from the match because of a sore neck.

Henman, the only player to beat Federer in 2004, doesn't quite agree with conventional wisdom.

"I've got a good record against him, but do I start as the favorite?" he asked. "I think when you look at him, he's the No. 1 in the world right now. That pretty much says it all. He won the Australian Open this year, and he's certainly played better than anyone."

Henman won his first Masters Series event late last year in Paris, helped by the telephone guidance of Paul Annacone, the former coach of Pete Sampras. Now he's going for back-to-back Masters Series titles, this time guided by Annacone in person.

The partnership has not taken long to register results.

"I think he figured out his own game now," Federer said. "He doesn't just run to the net, stay at the baseline. He knows what to do now, and the results show. So it's going to be a tough one."

Agassi presented Federer with his first true test at Indian Wells. He had not lost a set until Agassi took the opener against him, breaking his serve in the fifth game. Federer started to find his timing on the backhand side and broke Agassi in the second game of the second set.

The third set featured an epic battle in the opening game, which had seven deuces. Agassi saved three break points in that game and then saved another in the fifth. Federer was then tested in the eighth game, as he saved two break points, one with a forehand half volley in the corner, the other with a forehand down the line.

"I know he was a millimeter away from losing that match," Agassi said.

Then came the turning point in the ninth game. Agassi was leading, 40-15, when Federer turned it into a highlight reel.

"It looks even better on TV," said Federer, watching the replay during his on-court television interview.

Said Agassi: "It turned out to be more crucial than it seemed at the time, 4-4, 40-15. I played a good point, had the volley there. I felt like I hit the volley pretty much the way I wanted to. He looked like he was on the full stretch there. But somehow he generated a lot of pace, got that thing back up the line quickly."

For Agassi, close losses are taking a toll. His five-set loss to Marat Safin of Russia in the semifinals of the Australian Open had some wondering if this would be his last year on the tour.

He sounded almost forlorn talking about not having won a title since April.

"You always want to win," Agassi said. "What else can I do? I'm out there giving it a go. It doesn't fall my way, there's not a whole lot I can do about it. I'm losing tough matches to great players. I've done that my whole career ... lose a lot of close matches.

"You just want to get over the hurdle in the most important events, and you want it all to happen and come together. I'm still hopeful that can happen."

To that end, he may make some significant schedule modifications. His clay-court plans are undecided, or may not even exist before the French Open.

"Again, it's always important I'm fresh and sort of mentally ready to pay the price, eager and all that," said Agassi, who will be 34 next month.

"I'm not terribly convinced that the clay season's an important part to my career right now just because it always has the potential of taking more out of me than it gives me."

One option would be to go to the French Open and simply roll the dice with no clay-court tournament preparation.

"I would need to go to Paris ready to let it fly and hope a few things go right," Agassi said.

*

The French team of Arnaud Clement and Sebastien Grosjean won their second title together, defeating Wayne Black and Kevin Ullyett, both of Zimbabwe, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5, in the men's doubles final. Both teams were unseeded, and Clement and Grosjean had defeated the No. 1 team of Bob and Mike Bryan in the second round.

The top-seeded team of Virginia Ruano Pascual of Spain and Paola Suarez of Argentina defeated No. 2 Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia and Elena Likhovtseva of Russia, 6-1, 6-2, in the women's doubles final. It was the first Indian Wells title for Ruano Pascual and Suarez, also winners of the Australian Open in January.

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