NEW YORK – With a spry, childlike skip at the end to blow kisses to the crowd, Andre Agassi showed he still has legs and spirit aplenty, even if he is the oldest Grand Slam finalist in 31 years.
The seemingly ageless marathon man had more energy than a buffer, younger mirror image of himself in baseliner Robby Ginepri to win a third straight five-setter at the U.S. Open on a broiling Saturday afternoon and give himself a shot at a ninth Grand Slam title.
Agassi, the owner of U.S. Open titles in 1994 and ‘99, surely will be the underdog today against defending champion and top seed Roger Federer, a 6-3, 7-6 (0), 4-6, 6-3 victor in three hours against 2001 champ Lleyton Hewitt.
Federer overcame five set points in the second set and crushed the disconsolate Hewitt in the tiebreak. The Australian, who fell to Federer for the ninth straight time, had the small consolation of winning a set against him after losing 17 in a row.
“I expect a tough match,” Federer said of playing Agassi, though the Swiss has beaten him in their last seven matches. “He always makes the opponent run. I’m ready to run, defend myself and play aggressive when I have the chance.
“It’s Andre. It’s more emotional. … This is one of the biggest matches in my career. I better be playing well.”
Federer, who owns five Grand Slam titles and is 22-0 in finals over the past two years, is 44-1 on hard courts this year and 70-3 overall.
Agassi delivered an exclamation point to his 6-4, 5-7, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 triumph with a 120 mph ace, his 17th of the match, on his last serve, shook hands with Ginepri, then bounded happily onto the court to make his trademark kisses and bows to the 23,582 fans giving him an ovation in packed Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“Oh, how do you find words for what this means? This has been some of the greatest memories I’ve ever had on the court,” Agassi said. “I’ll have these memories the rest of my life. Being in the finals at 35 just means you’re going to have to put up with me a lot longer.”
Agassi’s wife, Steffi Graf, and children Jaden and Jaz were among those watching him raise his game once again in a fifth set – the first time in his 20-year career he’s had to play three five-setters in a row.
“He’s still got it,” said the 22-year-old Ginepri. “That’s why he’s still going at age 35. He still believes that he can compete with anybody.”
Agassi is the oldest Grand Slam finalist since Ken Rosewall, at 39, reached the U.S. Open and Wimbledon finals in 1974. Agassi has to hope he doesn’t suffer the same fate as Rosewall did in the U.S. Open that year in the final against Jimmy Connors, who beat him 6-1, 6-0, 6-1.
“I might surprise you a little bit,” said Agassi, whose back has not affected him this tournament after rendering him helpless with sciatic nerve pain in a first-round loss at the French Open and causing him to miss Wimbledon. “I feel good. I’m certainly going to be looking forward to it. Mentally just being out there is going to take care of that. Physically I’ll be able to make somebody earn it, that’s for sure.”
Agassi’s trainer, Gil Reyes, pushed him to the limit to recover from the back injury.
“He’s being tested, and today he was ready for the test,” Reyes said. “Andre right now is having to fight off Blake, Ginepri, Roddick, Nadal, all these young guns. But don’t forget he also had to find a way to fight off McEnroe, Connors, Lendl, Edberg. He fought these guys as well for titles, and that’s a champion. He stayed the course, navigated the course and found his place in the game.”
Agassi brought his B-game to the semifinal in the first few sets, missing more than usual with his backhand but still showing enough savvy to run the 46th-ranked American around the court as the temperature rose into the 80s.
They offered little contrast to each other – two right-handed baseliners, each with a two-fisted backhand. The differences were more superficial – Agassi walking pigeon-toed between points, Ginepri bowlegged; Agassi in traditional white, Ginepri in a sleeveless aqua blue shirt that showed off his thick arm muscles.
They both had endured long matches before they faced each other. Yet Ginepri, who had never gone beyond the fourth round of a Grand Slam event, summoned enough stamina to break Agassi in the seventh game of the fourth set, push the match to the limit and become the first man in the Open era to play four straight five-setters.
“Robby’s improved a lot,” Agassi said. “He’s gotten a lot smarter with his game.”
Agassi guzzled his pink drink as he sat on the sideline, then jogged out for what could have been his last set of the tournament and his career. He has said he won’t decide whether to retire until the end of the year, so no one, not even he, knew if this might be his final set at the Open.
If it was, Agassi didn’t want to go quietly. He whipped his red racket and jumped on Ginepri’s serves in the sixth game, got two break points, and cashed in on the second with a perfect drop shot that Ginepri chased from the baseline but couldn’t get before the ball bounced twice.
That 4-2 lead was all the edge Agassi needed. He held serve with the help of two aces to make it 5-2, then after Ginepri held, Agassi closed out the 2-hour, 47-minute match at love with his final ace.
“I’ve said before, I don’t know how I’m going to go out,” Agassi said. “I know one thing: If I’m out there playing well and giving something back to the sport, it’s going to be hard not to give it more.”
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