When Andre Agassi and Yevgeny Kafelnikov meet at the U.S. Open on Saturday, it will have the feeling of a final. Agassi (2) and Kafelnikov (3) are the highest seeds left in the men's draw, and whoever scores the match's final point will not only get the victory but also the world's No. 1 ranking.
Still, as Agassi is careful to remind anyone who will listen, the match will only be a semifinal and thinking of it any other way can be perilous.
"When you have to play on Sunday, it's very dangerous to think like that--it's absolutely absurd," Agassi said. "It's a ridiculous, ridiculous concept.
"But it's great that you're playing a match at the semifinals of the Open that also has a lot riding on it. Somewhere you just feel like it should be that way."
The temptation to pour too much importance into Saturday's matchup started more than a week ago, when top-seeded Pete Sampras and two-time defending champion Patrick Rafter withdrew from the tournament with injuries. Both were in the top half of the draw, so most of the Open's punch was left in the bottom bracket, where Agassi and Kafelnikov were posted. The top part of the draw became something of an open scramble, with No. 7 seed Todd Martin emerging to play unseeded Cedric Pioline in Saturday's other semifinal.
Martin has done his best to make his bracket exciting without Sampras or Rafter, surviving several close matches to get to his second career U.S. Open semifinal. He has been battling soreness and dehydration all week, but he said he felt better than he expected after his 6-3, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 quarterfinal win over Slava Dosedel. Getting some rest today will also help his physical cause, although he doesn't anticipate the extra time will do much to clean up his tennis game.
"Cedric's probably the prettiest player to watch, and I'm at the other end of the spectrum," Martin said. "He has those big, loopy strokes; he's French. Really, it's the athleticism and the grace in which he's athletic. I think I'm athletic in my own special way, but nowhere near to the extent that he is."
Pioline has a 5-3 record against Martin, although Martin has won three of the last four matches the pair have played. Agassi is also the underdog in his head-to-head matchups with Kafelnikov, who leads their series, 4-3. Still, Agassi won the most recent battle, defeating Kafelnikov in straight sets in the final of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington last month.
That victory moved Agassi to the No. 2 ranking, bumping Kafelnikov to No. 3. Sampras had held No. 1 coming into this tournament, but his withdrawal here will bump him down to No. 3 when the new rankings come out Monday. Whoever wins the Agassi-Kafelnikov semifinal will grab No. 1, with the other moving to No. 2.
"I'll give him the number one ranking if he gives me Saturday," Agassi joked.
Kafelnikov wants no such deal--he wants the match and the ranking.
"It's going to be lightning," Kafelnikov said. "We are both playing as well as probably we played in our careers. Andre wants to win the Slam in front of his home crowd. I want to be number one in the world at the end of the year."
Slam Streak Ends
American Alex O'Brien and Canadian Sebastien Lareau won the men's doubles title, 7-6 (9-7), 6-4, over Indian super duo Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes. Bhupathi and Paes won the French Open and Wimbledon titles this year after making the final at the Australian Open.
When: Through Sunday.
Where: USTA National Tennis Center, Flushing Meadows, N.Y.
TV: WUSA-9, WJZ-13, 11 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Defending champions: Patrick Rafter, Lindsay Davenport.
Top seeds: Pete Sampras, Martina Hingis.
Yesterday's results: Men's
quarterfinals -- Cedric Pioline, France, def. Gustavo Kuerten (5), Brazil, 4-6, 7-6 (8-6), 7-6 (16-14), 7-6 (10-8); Todd Martin (7), United States, def. Slava Dosedel, Czech Republic, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4,
semifinals -- Martina Hingis (1), Switzerland, vs. Venus Williams (3), United States; Serena Williams (7), United States, vs. Lindsay Davenport (2), United States.