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U.S. OPEN

No Cramping His Style

Agassi extends stay at his last Open with dramatic upset of No. 8 Baghdatis. American, 36, is fitter than Cypriot, 21, who cramps badly in fifth set.

September 01, 2006|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — They met at the net after sharing the same space for nearly four hours, and the loser, Marcos Baghdatis, patted the winner, Andre Agassi, several times on the shoulder and touched the back of his head, the final sign of admiration and punctuation to an epic Thursday night.

After they'd produced an instant classic at Arthur Ashe Stadium, it goes without saying that Andre Agassi and Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus will be forever linked in tennis lore, going well beyond this U.S. Open. Their second-round match turned into a five-part mini-drama with Agassi teetering on the verge of career elimination and, not long after, Baghdatis teetering and tumbling to the court and appearing possibly unable to continue because of leg cramps.

Who would have thought the drama would surpass Agassi's compelling first match here?

Encore, Andre.

Agassi defeated the eighth-seeded Baghdatis, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 5-7, 7-5, in 3 hours 48 minutes, winning it on his second match point when the Cypriot sent a shot long.

And so, the 36-year-old Agassi's dream ride through the final tournament of his career will continue Saturday in the third round, and any comparison to other magical journeys such as Jimmy Connors' run to the semifinals in 1991 were rendered moot after Thursday's turning, twisting marathon.

"It just seems like it's getting better and better, just keeps getting topped," Agassi said. "The feeling of that kind of enthusiasm

From looking like a skipping kid bouncing through the corridors beforehand, to an aging champion appearing to wobble on his last legs in the fifth set, to a beaming and relieved survivor, the three faces of Agassi were on full display. And this was barely two days after he needed a cortisone shot at a local hospital to function normally without pain.

"I felt so good," Agassi said after Thursday's match in an on-court TV interview. "What a time to feel it ... this just means the world to me."

Especially after surviving 23 aces and chasing down the clever, twisting drop shots administered by the Australian Open finalist. Baghdatis got over his early nerves, seemed to push aside a first-set injury to his left wrist suffered in a fall, and raised the tension appreciably when he rallied from an 0-4 deficit in the fourth set.

Agassi joked that it wasn't his back getting tighter, it was his "throat" and "my breathing." But physical problems hit Baghdatis with full force. Just after he pulled back into the match by taking the third and fourth sets and finally went ahead by breaking Agassi in the first game of the fifth, he needed treatment from a trainer for cramping in his legs.

That gave Agassi a lifeline and he visibly perked up, the sharpness of his game snapping back. The drama went up a notch in the ninth game of the fifth set when Baghdatis fell to the court after hitting a winning shot, racked with pain.

Because he had already received treatment, Baghdatis was unable to receive additional assistance, raising doubts about whether he'd be able to continue.

Who would have thought the wobbling last legs would belong to Agassi's 21-year-old opponent?

Still, the toughest opponent to finish off is an injured one, and if anyone doesn't think so, they don't remember the cramping Michael Chang against Ivan Lendl at the 1989 French Open.

The 4-4 game was a marathon in itself, with Agassi serving. After Baghdatis went down, he still had enough to go for his big shots off the ground, and the stunned Agassi needed to save four break points before holding.

Agassi had his first match point on Baghdatis' serve in the 10th game, but the match went on for another 10 minutes after he saved it with a service winner. Agassi had every right to be confused. Baghdatis was throwing in double faults, and then blasting aces and hitting service winners in excess of 120 mph.

"I fought for it, fighting every day for these matches, these emotions. That's why I came back. Andre is playing great tennis even if he's 36," Baghdatis said, smiling.

A reporter asked Baghdatis if he had really been hurt, and he responded good-naturedly, not getting angry at the odd question. "No, I was acting," he joked.

*

The day was decidedly lacking in drama before Agassi-Baghdatis, at least until eighth-seeded Martina Hingis lost in straight sets to unheralded Virginie Razzano of France in the second-round match immediately preceding the main event.

Earlier, 10th-seeded Lindsay Davenport needed just 40 minutes to dispatch Jelena Kostanic of Croatia, 6-0, 6-0, the first such shutout at the Open since 2002.

Even the potential of tension between Serena Williams and Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia fizzled after, well, Hantuchova fizzled out, blowing a 5-2 first-set lead with ill-advised strategy, such as trying drop shots at questionable times.

Williams, the wild-card entrant, seized the moment, adopted an aggressive game plan and won, 7-5, 6-3, securing a bit of revenge for her loss to Hantuchova at the Australian Open.

lisa.dillman@latimes.com

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