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Agassi, Seles Fall on a Name-Dropping Day

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 1997; Page C1

NEW YORK, Sept. 2 — Andre Agassi took off his white cap after the second set and went back onto the court without it. His stubble-covered head glistened with sweat under the night lights at Arthur Ashe Stadium. And his eyes glistened with the disappointment of a man who knew he was in terrible trouble.

On a stunning day at the U.S. Open, Agassi put the final dagger into a tournament that is fast finding itself devoid of major stars. Brilliant in the past few rounds, Agassi struggled, stumbled, and eventually fell, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4), 4-6, 6-3, to No. 13 Patrick Rafter, just one day after No. 1 Pete Sampras was upset, also in the fourth round.

Agassi’s defeat came on a day that started with No. 2 Monica Seles falling to No. 11 Irina Spirlea, 6-7 (7-5), 7-6 (10-8), 6-3, in the women’s quarterfinals and was punctuated by an incredible comeback from No. 2 Michael Chang, who almost was upset as well. Chang won seven consecutive games — and 11 of the last 12 — off France’s Cedric Pioline to secure a 6-3, 0-6, 5-7, 7-5, 6-1 victory.

With Agassi and Sampras gone, Chang now is the runaway favorite to win the men’s title in a field that includes no former U.S. Open champions and only one former Grand Slam titlist — Chang, who won the French Open way back in 1989.

And the big star of this tournament is fast becoming 17-year-old Venus Williams, whose career continued to blossom with a 7-5, 7-5 quarterfinal victory over Sandrine Testud. The victory put Williams in her first professional semifinal in her first U.S. Open. She will face the relatively unknown Spirlea on Friday in her bid for a trip to Sunday's final.

"Not so many people know me compared with Monica," said Spirlea, a 23-year-old Romanian who also will be making her first appearance in a Grand Slam semifinal. "Now I think they’ll know me."

They all know Agassi, who won this tournament in 1994 as an unseeded entrant, and had been bidding to do the same this time around. When Sampras lost Monday night, he almost immediately anointed Agassi the favorite — Agassi and Chang, although Sampras was careful to mention Agassi first. That benediction turned out to be misplaced.

Rafter — the serve-and-volleying Australian who made a surprising semifinal showing at this year’s French Open — has instead advanced to the quarterfinals, where he will meet Sweden’s Magnus Larsson. Chang will play No. 10 Marcelo Rios, who upset No. 7 Sergi Bruguera in straight sets today.

After a dreadful season that has left him with a current ranking of 63rd, Agassi looked as though he was returning to his previous form at this tournament, and was totally impressive in his third-round destruction of Lionel Roux. Tonight, though, he showed all kinds of heart and put in all kinds of effort but just couldn’t match that with his performance on the court.

Normally a genius at the return game, Agassi had trouble even with Rafter’s second serve early in this match and he had trouble with his own serve across the board. Clearly frustrated, he frequently yelled loudly at himself when he had mis-hits and mistakes, and took to pacing about the court.

But after dropping the first set and getting broken early in the second, Agassi staged a fierce rally that had the New York crowd electric and his own adrenaline running high. He saved a set point when Rafter was serving at 5-4, and had two set points of his own when Rafter was serving at 5-6. He couldn’t convert either, though, and ended up losing in a tiebreaker that seemed, at the time, to break both his spirit and his heart.

Looking subdued and almost compliant, Agassi quickly went down 4-1 in the third set, and with the clock fast approaching midnight, a substantial number of fans started to slip out of their seats. They figured Agassi — who has been accused of giving up more than a few times in his career — was minutes away from the end of his tournament. They were wrong. This is the U.S. Open and Agassi would never just give up here. He certainly didn’t tonight. Staging his own mini-comeback, Agassi won five straight games to take the set and ran off the court for the change-over pumping his fist and looking energized once again. And he kept the crowd’s hopes alive in the fourth set by staying on serve with Rafter until the eighth game.

In that game, Agassi managed to win only one point on his service, and that failure proved to be the final straw. Leading 5-3, Rafter double-faulted on his first match point, then finished Agassi off with a beautiful backhand volley winner.

"It certainly was disappointing," Agassi said in a television interview immediately after the match. "You have to deal with the circumstances that come. He forced me to hit shots early. I didn’t start out sharp and I was behind from the get-go."

If the Agassi of old was seen here, but only in glimpses, so too was the Seles who has won this tournament two times. Her match today was another thriller — what with two tiebreakers and some terrific points — but it, too, ended with a former champion and fan favorite on her way home. In name, Seles’ conqueror was Spirlea, the 23-year-old Romanian who used a Steffi Graf-style slice backhand — Spirlea’s whole game, actually, is patterned after Graf’s style — to play the self-described best tennis of her life. In her heart, though, Seles knew that she lost this match all by herself.

"I felt I should have won the match," Seles said, her spirit clearly defeated. "But then I have to give her credit that she played some great tennis. She didn’t choke when she was up. She went for all her shots at every point."

Seles did precisely the opposite. Her brow furrowed and her mind distracted, she squandered a match point in the second-set tiebreaker and squandered a triple break-point opportunity in the second game of the third set. Once those two opportunities were gone, Seles fought valiantly the rest of the way, but the match, in effect, was already over.

"From the beginning of the match I was struggling," Seles said, referring to her lack of confidence. "I feel I played some good tennis coming into here. I really felt my game dropped a little bit against [Mary Pierce on Sunday], and definitely today even more."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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