Agassi battles to hold off Malisse in five sets
NEW YORK -- Pretty impressive for an old guy. Heck, pretty impressive for a guy any age.
Andre Agassi became the fourth man over 35 and the first in 14 years to make the U.S. Open quarterfinals Monday, outlasting Xavier Malisse 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 4-6, 6-2. Two points from a straight-sets win, Agassi couldn't find answers when Malisse cranked up the intensity and evened the match.
"I was a bit discouraged there in the fourth. As hard as I was wanting to try, there's not a lot you can do when you're just not getting into the points," Agassi said. "Physically, I felt great. I just needed a chance. I didn't get that until the fifth.
"I was going to make him earn it," Agassi added. "He was going to have to play another great set."
With the adoring Open crowd chanting his name, Agassi regained energy in the fifth set. He broke Malisse, then stunned the Belgian with three aces in a row -- two 120 mph-plus -- to lead 5-2.
"Even a blind dog can find a bone now and then," Agassi said, chuckling.
Agassi grabbed two quick points on Malisse's serve, then capped the afternoon with another solid backhand. The Belgian had to lunge for it and drove it long, setting off raucous cheers in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Agassi took off his hat, and pumped his fists at the crowd.
"It felt great," said Agassi, who is playing in his 20th straight Open. "It means a lot more than the 19th and a lot less than the 21st."
Age and balky back aside, Agassi suddenly is looking like a serious contender to go at least as far as Connors did that year. At No. 7, he's the highest seeded player in the bottom half of the draw.
He next faces unseeded fellow American James Blake, who came back from injury and illness to knock off No. 2 Rafael Nadal in the third round and beat No. 19 Tommy Robredo in the fourth, 4-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-3.
The only other American man left in the tournament, unseeded Robby Ginepri, outlasted No. 13 Richard Gasquet of France 6-3, 3-6, 6-7 (8), 6-4, 6-0 to reach the quarters of a Grand Slam event for the first time. Ginepri next faces No. 8 Guillermo Coria of Argentina, who beat Nicolas Massu of Chile 6-4, 2-6, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-2, in a match that lasted 4 hours, 32 minutes and featured plenty of trash-talking.
A year ago Blake was recovering from partial paralysis of his face, caused by shingles, and watched the Open on television, uncertain if he'd ever play again. Asked what he would have thought then if told he'd be playing Agassi in the quarters this year, Blake laughed.
"I don't think I would have been able to speak," he said. "I think my year would have gotten worse, because I would have had a heart attack."
Blake, the first black American man to reach the quarters at the Open in 23 years, made a startling rebound from fractured vertebrae in his neck 16 months ago and the shingles that followed just after his father died of cancer. He's been the feel-good story of the tournament, along with the seemingly ageless Agassi.
"He's always been a real dangerous player," Agassi said of the 25-year-old Blake, who beat him en route to his first tour title in Washington three years ago but has lost three of their four meetings, the last in 2003. Blake won his second title in New Haven two weeks ago.
"You never know when somebody comes of age or game," Agassi said. "Some people, it happens a lot earlier than others. ... There's no question he's doing something better than he used to do."
Bald head, creaky back and two toddlers aside, Agassi isn't your average 35-year-old. He's reached the quarterfinals or beyond at all but two events this year, including all of his hard-court tournaments. After a herniated disc in his back shot pain down his right leg at the French Open, leading to a first-round loss and his absence from Wimbledon, he won his first tournament on his return in Los Angeles.
Two weeks later, he reached the finals in Montreal before losing to No. 2 Rafael Nadal.
And now he's making a run at the Open. With wife Steffi Graf and son Jaden watching, Agassi took an early lead against Malisse, who he'd beaten in straight sets in their previous four meetings.
"I need to get that first set so I can get my beliefs up," Malisse said. "Next time I'll have that confidence."
Agassi seemed to slow in the third. After putting Malisse on his heels with powerful backhands from the baseline and sneaky drop shots, Agassi suddenly looked tired. Instead of sprinting for shots, he began letting them go by, making everyone wonder if he was having back trouble.
He forced a tiebreaker and jumped to a 5-3 lead. But Malisse won the next four points to take the set -- and Agassi's momentum.
"It's not like in basketball, where you run out the clock and somebody throws up a half-court shot that happens to go in and rips your heart out," Agassi said. "This is a guy that's forcing me to close him out. ... He deserved that set, and outplayed me in the fourth."
For the first time, Malisse was dictating the action. He pounded ace after ace by Agassi -- he served 26 in all -- and had 36 winners in the third and fourth sets.
But Agassi isn't ready for the senior circuit yet. After holding serve to take a 2-1 lead in the fifth, he broke Malisse and the momentum was his again.
"When I got on top," Agassi said, "I think the wheels came off quickly."
Coria and Massu were involved in heated verbal exchanges during the 4-hour, 32-minute match on Louis Armstrong Court, with Olympic champion Massu apparently angered by Coria's behavior.
Grand Slam supervisor Mike Morrissey had to come on to the court to ask them to calm down with Coria leading 2-1 in the fifth set after the two players traded insults from their chairs during the changeover.
Coria eventually prevailed to reach the quarterfinals for the second time in three years, greeting victory by falling to one knee with his finger raised before jumping the net to exchange the briefest of handshakes with Massu.
He will face either French teenager Richard Gasquet or unseeded American Robby Ginepri in the last eight.
Information from The Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.
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