Thursday, December 18Agassi has another easy day
By Greg GarberESPN.com
NEW YORK -- Guillermo Coria reached his hand into his racket bag on Friday morning and pulled out a plum -- for Andre Agassi.
|Andre Agassi is through to his second semifinal of the year.|
Coria nearly sliced off the top of his right thumb -- the culprit, according to Coria, was a razor-sharp callous-removing tool -- and throughout his quarterfinal match with Agassi, he bled like a middle linebacker.
It was, for Agassi, the kindest cut of all here at the 2003 U.S. Open, where the 33-year-old's incredibly charmed life continues.
For the second straight match, Agassi prevailed against an opponent betrayed by a far younger body. The No. 1 seed defeated the No. 5-seeded Coria 6-4, 6-3, 7-5 to move on to the semis.
Coria beat Agassi in their spirited quarterfinal meeting at the French Open, but he was at full health in that clay encounter. On a faster surface that favors Agassi's power, a left hamstring pull prevented Coria from using his greatest asset, speed. Like a fighter working the ribs in the early rounds, Agassi moved him all over the court, side to side and front to back.
And yet, the 21-year-old Argentine never quit. He gamely pressed Agassi's serve to an extent the score does not reflect. In healthier circumstances, Coria might have beaten his idol.
Agassi said it's always difficult playing an injured player because "you're always sort of walking that fine line between being aggressive and playing your game, but not taking any unnecessary risk because maybe something less gets the job done. He looked like he was moving great. He looked like he was hitting the ball pretty strong off both sides."
And then the oldest man left in the tournament smiled.
"I would have cut my finger if it would have made me hit shots like that," Agassi said.
He will need every advantage in Saturday's semifinal against French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero. The No. 3 seed advanced by defeating Lleyton Hewitt 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-1. The way things are going, though, it wouldn't be surprising if Ferrero slipped in his hotel bathroom and had to default.
Hewitt isn't sure who has the advantage.
"Juan Carlos is obviously fitter than Andre, I think, at the moment in their careers," Hewitt said. "So I couldn't see it being a huge problem. But then again, you know, I think Andre won in straight sets, you know, pretty comfortably today.
"He didn't have to play yesterday. So, you know, it's a huge swing, you know, in Andre's favor, I'd say. I wouldn't write off Juan Carlos."
Even setting Coria's torn hamstring aside, Agassi came into the match with a decided advantage over the Argentine. He finished his round-of-16 match over Taylor Dent on Tuesday night -- the 22-year-old American retired with a thigh injury trailing 7-6 (5), 4-6, 5-7 -- just before rain descended. Thus, Agassi was into the quarters far ahead of the field. Andy Roddick got his match in on Wednesday night, but the other six contestants had to sit around for two days before they finished up Thursday evening.
This led to complaints from the non-American players and denials of favoritism by the USTA.
So with a daunting schedule of four matches in four days facing six of the would-be finalists, Agassi -- with two days of rest following an abbreviated match -- was looking at three matches in three days. And then, a gimpy, bleeding Coria was dropped in his lap.
It would have been difficult for Agassi, fit as he is, to play four matches in four days -- especially a projected final against Roddick. Now, he seems to have more than a fighting chance.
"You always want to be through the round," Agassi said. "So it's always an advantage to be waiting, to be in the wings sort of. But three days off is definitely out of the ordinary, out of the normal routine and rhythm of what it is you're used to for so many years.
"I think any situation can be a negative or a positive. I think it's all about the sort of confidence you bring to the table."
Coria's hamstring injury was a known quantity in the locker room; he injured it in the second match and tweaked it again in the round-of-16 match against Jonas Bjorkman. Physically, the injury limited his acceleration and top-end speed, particularly when he tried to push off toward the forehand side. This left Coria hitting a lot of wristy shots with his feet out of position. While his racket control is extraordinary -- his slice saves on the forehand side were remarkable to behold -- that's not going to work against a player like Agassi.
Mentally, the hamstring combined with the slice in his thumb left Coria a little anxious. Knowing he couldn't run down every ball, he often went for too much.
The match was only two games old when Coria pulled the bloody bandage off his thumb and put it in his pocket. Still, Coria broke Agassi in the third game before calling for ATP trainer Doug Spreen, who had no knowledge of the injury.
His response when he first saw the carnage? A startled, almost awed expletive. Spreen wrapped the thumb in gauze and sent him back out.
Coria, who retired against Agassi in this year's Australian Open, trailing 6-3, 3-1, with blisters on his right foot, seemed to briefly consider the notion today and was immediately broken. But with Agassi playing less than crisp tennis, Coria found himself hanging around in the on-serve first set. Agassi dug himself out of holes serving in the seventh and ninth games, then took the set by breaking Coria in the 10th. On his third set point, Agassi ran down a drop shot and Coria's lob was long.
In the second set, Agassi got the definitive break with Coria serving at 3-4. This time it was Agassi who hit the drop shot -- something he did with increasing frequency as the match progressed. Coria actually reached it, but his forehand volley was long.
The third set featured more grit from Coria, who fought back to 5-all before finally giving out, but not giving in.
That sent Agassi off the court after 2 hours and five minutes, while Hewitt and Ferrero battled for the right to play him. In the end, Agassi got 83 minutes more rest, another small advantage that could pay off big.
The Ferrero-Hewitt encounter was a matchup of two Grand Slam champions. Ferrero had won the two previous matches on clay, with Hewitt taking their three hard-court meetings. This one, however, was different.
Hewitt, who has suffered through a difficult year -- disappointing, at least, for a former No. 1. He has seemed a step slow and on Friday he was troubled by a sore hip that required attention on several changeovers. The injury bothered Hewitt most when he was serving.
The match was won (and lost) in the third-set tiebreaker.
Ferrero, serving big and hitting winners, ran out to a 5-2 lead, but Hewitt leveled it at 5-all. An unreturnable serve from Ferrero was followed by a backhand winner down the line, and Ferrero had a two sets-to-one lead. Hewitt went out with a whimper, losing six of the final set's seven games.
Even though Ferrero is the No. 3 player in the world, he hasn't once played in Arthur Ashe Stadium on his way to the semifinals. It's providing him some motivation.
"I want to show to everybody that I'm No 3 in the world, and I could be No. 1," Ferrero said.
The last time he met Agassi was on a hard court in the Tennis Masters Cup at Shanghai, where Ferrero won in three sets.
"If I win tomorrow, it will be the same (as Shanghai)," Ferrero said. "It will be close."
Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.