Agassi comes back from brink to reach quarterfinals

Posted: Tuesday, June 04, 2002

PARIS -- Andre Agassi was in a rut: His rhythm was off, his much younger opponent couldn't miss, his deficit was growing.

And this is what ran through his mind: ''It can't get any worse.''

Down two sets and a break in the third, Agassi called on every shred of savvy to come back again and again until he finally overcame wild-card entry Paul-Henri Mathieu 4-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 Monday to reach the French Open quarterfinals.

With top-seeded Lleyton Hewitt and three-time champion Gustavo Kuerten gone, Agassi is looking increasingly like the favorite, thanks largely to his resolve.

''The great part about tennis is you can't run out the clock. You can't just get a lead for yourself and slow down,'' said Agassi, at 32 a dozen years older than Mathieu. ''As long as we were still playing, I had a chance.''

Barely, though. He could have folded at various junctures.

Take your pick: trailing 2-0 in the third set; when consecutive double faults set up Mathieu's break in the third game of the final set; two games later, when Agassi faced two break points that could have put him down 4-1.

Each time, somehow, the oldest man left in the tournament came through -- with an ace (he finished with 11), or with a groundstroke hit at an angle a billiards player would appreciate, or with one of eight delicate drop shots.

''When he wants to win a specific point, he wins it,'' said the 107th-ranked Mathieu, who stunned No. 14 Jiri Novak and No. 23 Fabrice Santoro last week. ''He's lived the situation 200 times already. For me it was the first time. That's the difference.''

How great is the gulf? Mathieu, who won the 2000 junior title at Roland Garros, has eight career tour-level match victories -- 705 fewer than Agassi. Yet it was the Frenchman who dominated early, placing shots by the lines and celebrating by pounding his chest.

Then Agassi stopped rushing, became more creative and won 11 of 12 games, then -- after a lapse -- the last five games of the match. Mathieu suddenly looked like a rookie pitcher who breezes early in a game but gets roughed up on his third time through the lineup.

As Mathieu put it, reverentially and simply: ''Hey, I had Agassi across the net.''

Next for Agassi in his quest for an eighth Grand Slam title will be 11th-seeded Juan Carlos Ferrero, who rallied to beat Gaston Gaudio 6-7 (3), 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-4. Ferrero lost to Kuerten in the semifinals the past two years.

Marat Safin topped Arnaud Di Pasquale 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 to reach the final eight, where he'll face Sebastien Grosjean, a 6-2, 7-5, 6-3 winner over Xavier Malisse.

Agassi, who beat another 20-year-old, Tommy Robredo, in the third round, seeks total control on court, and not only when it comes to shotmaking.

Before Monday's match, he tried on one wrist band, then took it off and switched to a seemingly identical one. He tells ball boys how to hold changeover umbrellas to block the sun properly. When he grabs a new racket, he holds it out and has a ball boy pull off the clear plastic sleeve. Even the way Agassi sips water -- tilt bottle toward mouth, swig, tilt bottle away from mouth, repeat -- looks well-rehearsed.

So perhaps it's not surprising that, with sprinkles falling and umbrellas popping, Agassi double faulted to hand Mathieu a 5-3 lead in the second set. Mathieu ended the set before a 15-minute rain delay gave Agassi time to talk with coach Darren Cahill.

After the break, the No. 4-seeded Agassi took awhile to right himself.

When he finally did, by breaking to 2-2 in the third set as his fifth break point ended on Mathieu's errant forehand, the match was 1 1/2 hours old.

But by now Agassi was getting in a groove, applying pressure by driving shots from inside his baseline while Mathieu was holed up 5 feet behind his.

There were still glitches to overcome, including the fifth-set deficit, but Agassi pulled through. It didn't hurt that Mathieu's game dropped off considerably: One of his seven aces and six of his seven double faults came after the second set, and he had 21 unforced errors to Agassi's seven in the last set.

It's the fourth time (all since 1996) that Agassi won after losing the first two sets, and the prior occasion was in the same setting. In the 1999 French Open final against Andrei Medvedev, Agassi's 1-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 triumph made him the fifth man to complete a career Grand Slam.

Both then and Monday, he was filled with the sort of grit that previous versions -- the ''Image is Everything'' Agassi or the married-to-Brooke-Shields-and-ranked-141st Agassi -- didn't always demonstrate.

''Every time I think about things I could have done differently,'' Agassi said, ''I take a lot of pleasure in the fact that I'm still here doing things the way I want.''

Notes: Mathieu trained three years at the Bollettieri Academy in Florida, the same place Agassi honed his game as a teen. ... Guillermo Canas (who upset Hewitt) plays Albert Costa (who eliminated Kuerten) in a men's quarterfinal Tuesday. ... The women's quarters Tuesday include Venus Williams vs. Monica Seles, and Serena Williams vs. Mary Pierce.

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