Whether first-round walkover or championship slugfest, Andre Agassi concludes each match these days in the same manner. He turns toward fans in the stands, blows a kiss and bows at the waist, as if to say, "The pleasure is mine."
Agassi was hardly born with such grace. And no fans have had better seats to the drama of his personal and professional evolution, from brash little brat to the sport's most thoughtful statesman, than ticket-holders at the U.S. Open.
Thursday afternoon they rewarded the 35-year-old Agassi with a standing ovation for simply walking onto Arthur Ashe Stadium for his second-round match against Ivo Karlovic. Two-and-a-half hours later, they stood again as Agassi sent off the hard-serving Croat, fending off 30 aces in the process, in three tiebreaks -- 7-6 (7-4), 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (7-5) -- to advance to the third round of his 20th consecutive U.S. Open.
American James Blake also advanced Thursday, drawing ovations in the evening session for his 6-2, 6-2, 6-4 victory over Igor Andreev of Russia. Blake has been playing the best tennis of his career since returning from illness, injury and the loss of his father in 2004. He reached the final of Washington's Legg Mason Tennis Classic last month and picked up his second career title in New Haven, Conn., three weeks later.
On Thursday, he fired 31 winners in his victory over Andreev and, with it, earned a third-round meeting with second-seeded Rafael Nadal of Spain on Saturday. It's a meeting Blake relishes, particularly since Nadal's recent hard-court title in Montreal, where he beat Agassi in the final.
"For him to go through that draw -- beat a legend like Agassi in the finals, on pretty quick courts -- is pretty impressive," Blake said. "And it makes him, in my mind, one of the favorites to win this."
Agassi is the highest seeded American (seventh) remaining in the men's draw after Andy Roddick's first-round ouster. And while he would love nothing more than adding a ninth Grand Slam event title to his resume before retiring, Agassi continues to compete -- despite the increasing amount of time and pain it requires -- more out of love of the game than love of the spoils that come with it.
After falling to No. 141 in the world in 1997, Agassi gave up any expectation of climbing back into the top ranks. "What was important to me was to make a decision for a way of life -- to get the most out of myself every day," Agassi explained Thursday. "Just to do that -- build a little momentum, and refuse to not get a day better each day. That hasn't stopped."
On Thursday, the 6-foot-10 Karlovic served as Agassi's latest measuring stick.
The gangly Karlovic boasts the most lethal serve in tennis; Agassi, the best return. And though there was nearly a foot's difference between them (Agassi is 5-11), just a few points separated them in the match.
As Agassi learned, it's no easy feat to break Karlovic's serve. Not only does the ball come at you fast (130-plus mph), it comes at you with a peculiar trajectory -- from the heavens, as if a lightning bolt hurled by Zeus himself. So Agassi found himself not only lunging at it, but leaping at it, also.
"It's an incredible serve," Agassi said. "I'm trying to figure out where it is I would need to have to stand on the court to have the same trajectory."
Neither player broke serve in the first set, though Agassi faced set point serving at 5-6. He held on to force the tiebreak, and after the two swapped mini-breaks, Karlovic smacked a volley wide to give Agassi the critical advantage.
Agassi broke Karlovic early in the second set, but the Croat broke back to force another tiebreak. Once again an errant Karlovic volley settled it.
The wind picked up as the match wore on, so Agassi took some pace off his shots to build in an extra margin of error.
Karlovic, meanwhile, tried to forget that it was Agassi across the net. "I always enjoyed watching him as a kid," said Karlovic, 26. "He is a legend."
While Karlovic's huge reach made it tough for Agassi to lob over him and sneak passing shots by him, Karlovic's long legs made it tough for the Croat to bend his knees sufficiently to field low balls that barely skimmed the net. The longer the rallies, Agassi found, the greater the likelihood that Karlovic would err.
"All he needs is one game and then he's gonna win the set," Agassi said. "So you want to make him earn it by playing the game he's not comfortable with."
Up next for Agassi is Tomas Berdych of Germany and, better still, another opportunity to play before a U.S. Open crowd.
"A lot changed in my career after falling to number 141 and coming back and winning in Paris" at the 1999 French Open, Agassi said. "I just have a lot to be thankful for inside those lines; certainly outside those lines, as well. So I'm more motivated now than ever to get out there and figure out a way through the battle."
Others advancing to third-round play included former U.S. Open champions Lindsay Davenport and Justine Henin-Hardenne, who cruised into the third round with straight-set victories. Davenport needed just 45 minutes to dispatch Pauline Parmentier of France, 6-1, 6-1. Henin-Hardenne overcame serving woes (eight double faults) to defeat Maria Sanchez Lorenzo of Spain, 6-3, 6-4.