American loses charisma contest, wins tennis match at Australian Open

Image isn't everything for Agassi

Posted: Sunday, January 21, 2001

MELBOURNE, Australia -- For a set and a half, Andre Agassi struggled with the unpredictability of Australian Andrew Ilie, whose exuberance and acrobatic shotmaking had the partisan crowd laughing, chanting and sensing an upset.

It was not to be.

Agassi, unflustered by Ilie's theatrics, rallied in workmanlike fashion Sunday to win 6-7 (1), 6-3, 6-0, 6-3 in the fourth round of the Australian Open. The defending champion advanced to a potential quarterfinal showdown against Pete Sampras, who was to face Todd Martin later Sunday.

Agassi lost the charisma contest -- and when's the last time that happened? -- but won his match because Ilie couldn't sustain a brilliant start. From 3-3 in the second set, Agassi won nine consecutive games to take control.

U.S. Open champion Marat Safin's bid for a second consecutive Grand Slam title ended when he lost to 14th-seeded Dominik Hrbaty 6-2, 7-6 (6), 6-4. Safin, seeded second, repeatedly threw his racket in frustration and busted it after losing the final point.

No. 12 Patrick Rafter, who has said he may retire at the end of the year, reached the quarterfinals of his country's biggest tournament for the first time by beating No. 8 Tim Henman 6-2, 6-3, 6-3.

In women's play, Anna Kournikova reached her first Grand Slam quarterfinal in 3 1/2 years by beating Barbara Rittner 6-3, 6-1. The eighth-seeded Kournikova will next play defending champion Lindsay Davenport, who eliminated No. 15 Kim Clijsters 6-4, 6-0.

Kournikova trailed 2-3 in the first set, then held serve in a 24-point game and dominated after that. The showing is her best in a major tournament since Wimbledon in 1997, when she reached the semifinals as a 16-year-old.

No. 12 Jennifer Capriati overcame an early 5-1 deficit to beat Marta Marrero 7-5, 6-1.

Conditions were sunny but milder after two days of blistering weather, and the sixth-seeded Agassi withstood some early heat from Ilie. The journeyman's entertaining assortment of groundstrokes -- including a fallaway forehand and at least four different backhands -- kept Agassi guessing, and in the first set every unconventional shot seemed to go in.

''You think you have him on the defensive, and it's like he has you right where he wants you,'' Agassi said. ''It's not easy to make a running, flying backhand up the line off your back foot, open stance, 25 feet behind the baseline. That's too good.''

The followthrough on one backhand nearly drove Ilie spinning into the ground like a corkscrew. And when he lofted a lob over Agassi on break point for a 2-1 lead in the second set, a jubilant Ilie made a vulgar gesture with his racket -- the sort performed by heavy metal guitarists. The crowd loved it.

''I didn't mean any disrespect to Andre,'' Ilie said. ''It was just a celebration that got that way. It was a long point, and I was really happy.''

Agassi, usually a strong frontrunner, served for the first set at 5-4 but let the game get away, then succumbed to a barrage of winners by Ilie in the tiebreaker.

But after converting only two of his first 11 break-point chances, Agassi began to take control as Ilie became more erratic. The Aussie finished with more winners -- 46 to 25 -- but also hit a staggering 63 errors to 27 for Agassi.

''I gave it my best shot out there,'' Ilie said. ''I ran out of steam a little bit. I played some really good tennis, he played better, and I wish him good luck.''

Davenport, seeded second, lost just six points on her first serve and faced only a single break point, which she won.

''My serve really helped me,'' she said. ''That was really the key. It's so important if you can hold your serve and be consistent that way. That enabled me to be a little more free on my returns.''

Among those in the center court crowd for the first match of the morning was Clijster's boyfriend, Lleyton Hewitt. He had a short night's sleep after losing to Carlos Moya the final match of the third round, 4-6, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2, 7-5, which ended at 1:16 a.m. Sunday.

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