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Agassi rallies past Rafter for spot in finals

Posted: Friday, January 26, 2001

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Andre Agassi pounded shots that made Patrick Rafter lunge, dive, scamper and jump. It was all too much.

With cramps destroying Rafter's acrobatic serve-and-volley attack, Agassi, the defending champion, rallied for a 7-5, 2-6, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-3 victory Thursday night that put him in the Australian Open final.

It will be his fifth in the last eight Grand Slam tournaments. Beside last year's Australian, he also won the 1999 French and U.S. Opens and was runner-up at Wimbledon.

''It's tough when you want to chase it down but your legs just seize up,'' said Rafter, a two-time U.S. Open champion who suffered a similar fate in Australia's 3-1 loss to Spain in last month's Davis Cup finals.

''He really wore me down,'' said Rafter, the first Australian since 1996 to reach the semifinals of his home country's Grand Slam tournament.

Rafter kept attacking to the end of the 3-hour, 7-minute match.

''You never know what might happen out there, and you've got to try,'' he said. ''I wasn't going to walk off possibly playing my last match of the Australian Open with an injury.''

Rafter has said he is going to take a break from tennis after this year, maybe not come back. Agassi, who lost to him in last year's Wimbledon semifinals, said the 28-year-old Rafter should stick around.

With a nighttime temperature of 82 degrees and high humidity, Agassi said, ''these were tough conditions. We were both working hard. I felt I earned that advantage'' of Rafter's faltering legs.

The match was reminiscent of the semifinal last year where Agassi rallied from two sets to one down to beat Pete Sampras.

In the championship match Sunday, he will meet the winner of Friday's all-French semifinal between Sebastien Grosjean and Arnaud Clement.

The women's final Saturday will be between three-time winner Martina Hingis and resurgent Jennifer Capriati.

Hingis beat Venus Williams 6-1, 6-1 -- Williams' worst loss ever -- and Capriati knocked out defending champion Lindsay Davenport 6-3, 6-4.

It was the first time Hingis had beaten both Williams sisters in the same tournament. It also was the first time that Capriati, coming back from troubled teen-age years, had reached a Grand Slam final.

Agassi won the first set thanks to an 11th-game break, when Rafter double-faulted and volleyed long. Rafter took control of the second by breaking in the fourth game with help from two drop shots and a double fault by Agassi.

In the third, both sides played their contrasting styles to perfection, and a missed backhand by Agassi in the tiebreaker decided the set.

Rafter already was feeling the onset of cramps, however, and by late in the fourth set had slowed noticeably. He called for the trainer to massage his legs before the final set.

Agassi never was in trouble after breaking Rafter for 3-1 in the fourth set with a backhand return down the line.

He broke again for 3-1 in the final set and served out, reaching match point with a backhand pass and finishing when Rafter floated a backhand just long.

Agassi called winning the first set ''quite significant, because once Pat sees the light at the end of the tunnel, he becomes very, very effective.''

In the women's semifinals, both losers suffered from a rash of errors as Williams missed a chance to collect a fourth consecutive big title after the Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Olympic championships.

No. 12 seed Capriati, who rates the 1992 Olympic gold medal as the greatest feat of her career, beat Steffi Graf in that final at age 16. That was before her mid-1990s hiatus from tennis with drug and personal problems.

Hingis is seeking her fourth title in the last five Australian Opens.

Williams, who beat Hingis on her way to the Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles, held service only once, committed 38 errors and yielded her second service break of the second set by serving three double faults.

She gave Hingis match point by slamming a volley far out, and then missed a backhand long.

''Things happen all the time for no apparent reason,'' Williams said.

She said Hingis played her normal consistent, counterpunching game.

''A lot of times I'd be in there and I'd just miss a shot, just giving it back to her,'' Williams said. ''That's something you can't do, especially in a Grand Slam semifinal.''

Williams, however, had been struggling throughout the tournament, needing three sets in three of her first five matches. She had to rally from 3-5 in the final set to beat Amanda Coetzer in Wednesday's quarterfinals.

Hingis also was responsible for one of Williams' worst previous losses, 6-2, 6-1 in 1997 -- ''when I was like a baby,'' the 20-year-old Williams said.

Before rallying from 1-4 in the final set to beat Serena Williams on Wednesday, Hingis watched Venus' slow start against Coetzer.

''(It) was the same thing today,'' Hingis said.

''I am fitter now and taking the ball earlier, and I think that helps me when I play the power players like the Williamses,'' Hingis said.

In three previous events, Hingis had beaten one Williams sister and then lost to the other, including the 1999 U.S. Open, won by Serena.

She became the third player to beat both sisters at the same tournament. Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario did it in 1998 and Steffi Graf in '99.

Davenport hung her head or banged her racket on the court after some of the 43 errors that accounted for a majority of Capriati's 78 points.

Trying to stay in the match with Capriati serving at 5-4 in the second set, Davenport missed two serve returns, netted a backhand and finally dumped a forehand into the net while chasing a wide shot by Capriati.

''In all the semifinals I've ever played, this was probably the most disappointing in the way that I showed up to play,'' Davenport said.

Capriati said she was stronger and more aggressive than when she lost to Davenport in last year's semifinals here.

''Maybe I was kind of intimidated by her and the whole moment,'' Capriati said.

Not this time.

''Just in this tournament, from the beginning, all of a sudden this confidence came over me, like this wave of confidence,'' said Capriati, who beat No. 4 Monica Seles in the quarterfinals.



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