A sweeping rainstorm at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic last night forced more than 50 ball boys and girls, security officials and groundskeepers to use towels to mop up the stadium court of the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center. When the water was finally cleared, Andre Agassi was able to finish his 6-4, 6-2 semifinal win over Todd Martin and advance to today's final against Yevgeny Kafelnikov. The top-seeded Russian overcame Germany's Nicolas Kiefer, 6-2, 2-6, 6-3.
Agassi is the defending champion, although when he meets Kafelnikov more than just his title will be on the line. Rankings and seedings for the upcoming U.S. Open also will be at stake.
"This is what it's all about--it should be a good match," Agassi said. "He's a real good baseliner who moves well, and he's 6 foot 3, so he makes the court seem rather small. I'm going to have to play well and want it just a little more."
Neither Kafelnikov nor Agassi have enough ranking points to grab the No. 1 spot from Pete Sampras, but Agassi, ranked No. 3, can overtake No. 2 Kafelnikov with a win today. The rankings are especially important because they will determine the seedings for the Open. Whoever ends up No. 2 not only will have an easier draw, but also will be assured of being in the bracket opposite Sampras.
Both Sampras and No. 4 Patrick Rafter withdrew from a tournament in Indianapolis last week because of injuries, but Agassi believes they will be in top shape by the time the Open starts Aug. 30.
"I'd bet on that," he said, smiling. "I'm sure they are in a lot of pain right now, but I'd bet on that."
Sampras has beaten Agassi all three times they have met this summer, starting with the finals at Wimbledon. Agassi has had an otherwise stellar hard-court season, winning 27 of his last 31 matches. The only player to beat him besides Sampras is Kafelnikov, who won their semifinal in Montreal earlier this month, 6-1, 6-4.
Kafelnikov has a 4-2 career record against Agassi, although after the Montreal match, Agassi vowed revenge.
"He promised me a rematch," Kafelnikov said. "Right after I beat him, he said, 'What goes around comes around.' "
To face Kafelnikov, Agassi first had to get by the fourth-seeded Martin, who is ranked No. 7 in the world. Martin overpowered local favorite Paul Goldstein in the quarterfinals, coming from behind in the second set to close out that match, but he could not overcome an early deficit last night.
Agassi was too good, piling up five break points in the first game. He didn't convert those, but he did break Martin to go up 5-4, and then serve out the first set. Agassi broke early in the second set, going ahead, 2-1, on a bizarre point that ended with Martin grabbing the ball out of the air at the net instead of letting Agassi hit an overhead.
"That was me not wanting to get hit by the ball or his racket--and sort of submission, I guess," Martin said.
The rain came shortly after Agassi's break, causing a delay of 1 hour 27 minutes. The storm lasted only about 40 minutes but dumped enough water to require the makeshift stadium crew to use blowers, squeegee rollers and, finally, towels to dry the court. When play resumed, Martin had a chance to break Agassi but failed; Agassi has saved all nine break points he has faced this tournament.
Agassi then broke Martin one more time before serving out the match.
"That was good tennis," Agassi said. "I served well and I returned well. I was making him play a lot on his serve and getting early leads on my service games."
Kafelnikov did not have as smooth a time in his victory over Kiefer in the afternoon. The momentum changed several times, with Kiefer nearly breaking Kafelnikov in the first game, then Kafelnikov routing Kiefer to win the first set, 6-2. Kiefer charged back in the second set, then Kafelnikov won the third.
"Obviously I didn't have the easy ride I would like, but I'm happy to be through," Kafelnikov said. "For me it was a difficult match--I had to defend myself. But I didn't want to exit today. I wanted to be in the last match of the tournament."