Passenger jets scream overhead at the U.S. Open, and the skyline of one of the world's most congested cities looms in the backdrop. But somehow, this uniquely chaotic setting for tennis has breathed new life in the careers of two of the more likable players and unlikely champions at this year's tournament, 35-year-old Andre Agassi and wild-card James Blake, who labored particularly hard this Labor Day and were rewarded beyond expectation for their efforts.
Agassi's improbable march toward Sunday's men's final continued, as the two-time U.S. Open champion defied time and an opponent 10 years his junior in a five-set battle of fitness and resolve Monday. With his 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (7-5), 4-6, 6-2 victory over Xavier Malisse of Belgium, Agassi advanced to the quarterfinals for the 13th time in a career that has spanned three decades.
Blake followed his childhood idol at Arthur Ashe Stadium and added another chapter to the storybook tale he was written here, knocking off a seeded opponent for the third time during this tournament -- Tommy Robredo of Spain, 4-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-3 -- to join Agassi in the quarterfinals. Blake becomes only the second wild card to advance to the U.S. Open's quarterfinals, joining Jimmy Connors, who did so in 1991.
Just two months earlier, Agassi had limped off the court after a first-round loss at the French Open, rendered all but immobile by an inflamed sciatic nerve, and flown home to confront the question of whether his career was over.
Less than 12 months earlier, Blake could barely summon the strength to limp on a tennis court, battling nerve damage, vertigo and double vision after a bout with shingles left him confronting retirement, as well, at age 24.
But neither Agassi nor Blake saw anything mystical about Monday's victories.
"I know I'm not in a Hollywood script," said Blake, the world's 49th-ranked player, "otherwise I probably would have won a lot more this year. I just think this is all the hard work I've been putting in -- all the time I've spent on the court and in the gym."
If Agassi and Blake were the stars of a crowded holiday bill of tennis, New York's raucous tennis fans played stellar supporting roles, lifting their flagging spirits when things looked most bleak.
For Agassi, the gut check came when he found himself facing a tiebreaker in the third set after having come within two points of winning the match in straight sets. Then, after losing the tiebreaker, Agassi faced a fourth set and, along with it, the harsh reality that the longer the match lasted, the worse his chances of prevailing.
Looking on from a courtside suite, Agassi's longtime trainer, Gil Reyes, was overwhelmed by the rumble in the crowd that quickly built to a roar, urging Agassi to fight on. "I was almost reaching out to the crowd and saying, 'Help him out! Get him through!' " Reyes said. "And they really did! You hear that little groundswell. And I said, 'Thank you, New York!' "
But all those fans who wake up with a sore throat Tuesday will face a dilemma Wednesday, when Agassi meets Blake in the quarterfinals. Agassi holds a 3-1 record over Blake. To this day, Blake counts his sole victory over Agassi, at Washington's Legg Mason Classic in 2002, as the biggest of his career because of the esteem in which he holds his countryman. And nothing that happens Wednesday will change that, he said.
"I'll still speak admirably of him -- before the match, after the match, if someone interviews me during the match I'll probably say nice things about him," Blake said. "He's really a true gentleman. That's something that impressive when you don't need to do that because you're one of the legends of the sport. You've got everything you can ever dream of, but he still knows how to treat people."
Robby Ginepri became the third American man to join the tournament's final eight, upsetting 13th-seeded Richard Gasquet of France, 6-3, 3-6, 6-7 (10-8), 6-4, 6-0.
In the women's draw, top-ranked Lindsay Davenport dismissed Nathalie Dechy of France, 6-0, 6-3, to earn a quarterfinal date with last year's finalist, Elena Dementieva. And in a reprise of summer's lopsided French Open final, Mary Pierce turned the tables on Justine Henin-Hardenne, upsetting the seventh seed and two-time Roland Garros victor, 6-3, 6-4. Also advancing was third-seeded Amelie Mauresmo of France, who ousted Elena Likhovtseva, 6-1, 6-4.
The skies were sunny and blue when Agassi took the court, and he threw himself into his work, striking the ball efficiently and seemingly effortlessly to win the first two sets while Malisse struggled. The streaky Belgian found his serving groove in the third set, and the tiebreaker was on. Agassi got the first mini-break for a 3-2 lead, then double-faulted to give it back. Agassi got to 5-3, but Malisse wouldn't buckle. The Belgian took two points on Agassi's serve and smacked a backhand winner down the line to win the set.
Malisse played even better in the fourth set. His serves struck the lines (he finished with 26 aces), and he shredded Agassi's weak second serves. With Agassi looking flat-footed and tentative, Reyes feared Agassi's sciatic nerve had flared up again. It wasn't the nerve, Agassi explained later, but Malisse's exceptional play.
With more than two decades' experience to draw on, Agassi shoved the third and fourth sets to the back of his mind, shook off the temptation to play cautiously and started ripping his shots.
"I can live with losing," Agassi explained. "I can't live with not taking my chances."