Agassi wins thriller to extend career

Published: Friday, September 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 1, 2006 at 1:47 a.m.
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Andre Agassi of the United States smiles after he defeated Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus at the US Open tennis tournament in New York, Thursday, Aug. 31, 2006.

The Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) - How about that? Andre Agassi, 36 years old and burdened by a bad back, held up better than the kid across the net in a thriller that will be talked about for years.
Buoyed by a cortisone injection, along with a raucous, sellout crowd that boosted his spirits when things suddenly looked bleak as could be, Agassi extended his career for at least one more match by beating eighth-seeded Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 5-7, 7-5 at the U.S. Open.
They traded stinging strokes for nearly four hours as Thursday night became Friday, and it was the 21-year-old Baghdatis who broke down physically, his body contorted by cramps in both thighs during an eight-deuce, four-break-point game that Agassi eventually held to lead 5-4 in the fifth. Later, Baghdatis used the chair umpire's stand to stretch his aching legs.
And there was Agassi, still hustling to reach seemingly unreachable shots, responding with winners, and skipping out to the baseline to start games at his record 21st consecutive Open _ one for each year of Baghdatis' life.
"Tonight has been another example of moments you're not guaranteed," Agassi said.
When it was over, they shook hands at the net, then embraced. Baghdatis wished Agassi good luck. Agassi asked Baghdatis if he was OK. And Agassi was quick to thank the 23,700 or so of his closest friends who sure are enjoying quite a ride right along with him at Flushing Meadows. It's a parade that will go down in annals right alongside Jimmy Connors' run to the 1991 Open semifinals at 39.
Now comes this third-round matchup: Agassi vs. Becker. A classic right? Well, not quite. It's Benjamin Becker (no relation to Boris), a 25-year-old qualifier from Germany who's ranked 112th and has won zero tour titles. Becker knocked off No. 30 Sebastien Grosjean in straight sets.
Get past that, and Agassi could face Andy Roddick in the round of 16.
Baghdatis' very first serve of the second-round encounter was a fault, eliciting hoots from the stands. Moments later, someone in the upper deck yelled: "Andre, this is your house! And it's all of us against him!"
As if there were any doubt. Agassi is, after all, an American at the American Grand Slam, one of the most popular players in recent tennis history _ and everyone knows each match here could be his last as a pro. That final part is also why Agassi went to the hospital this week for the latest in a series of shots to dull pain from a troublesome sciatic nerve; he could barely stand after his first-round victory over Andrei Pavel.
Against Baghdatis, Agassi missed consecutive backhands to get broken in the fifth set's opening game. Agassi wiped sweat from his brow, shook his head and trudged slowly toward the sideline. Was the end near?
"Yeah, we were all getting worried," his brother Phil said. "You know how they say your life flashes before your eyes before you die? There was his career, flashing before your eyes."
But with the lead _ and momentum _ finally on Baghdatis' side, it was the youngster who asked for a medical timeout to get his strained left thigh massaged.
Agassi took a seat and sighed, while the crowd chanted, "Let's go, Andre!" And there was nothing wrong with Agassi's back when he stretched for a low volley at a sharp angle to break right back in the next game. Agassi shook his fist and clenched his teeth, still spry after all these years.
Later, Baghdatis' legs locked up, and he dropped to the ground. But he got up and continued to play.
"I just wanted to fight," said Baghdatis, who attributed his cramps to stress. "I wanted to stay on the court. I'll do anything to win."
Agassi had appeared to be in control after the first two sets since he had won all previous 58 matches at the Open with that size lead. And he was up 4-0 in the fourth set, before winners began to come more frequently from the racket of Baghdatis, who knew his role going in, saying: "Sure, I'm the bad guy for tonight."
Agassi and Baghdatis share a sponsor and wore shirts with the same weblike design. The difference: Agassi's was country club white, while Baghdatis' was a neon orange. And the kid topped off his look with a hip headwrap, the sort of thing Agassi might have donned a decade or more ago.
The clock might as well have been turned back, though, the way Agassi smacked balls from inside the baseline, the thwack from his racket echoing off the court's walls. He was having a great time, plain and simple, just like his wife, former star Steffi Graf, who was smiling and clapping in the stands. Agassi saluted the crowd when it did the wave in the third set. When Baghdatis sailed one lob long, ending a point, Agassi went ahead and hit the ball through his legs anyway, as if to say: "Hey, I've still got it."
But Baghdatis, an up-and-coming star who reached the Australian Open final and Wimbledon semifinals this year, wouldn't make it easy, even after he tumbled and hurt his left wrist in the first set. He was visited by a trainer, who gave him some pain pills, and Baghdatis' two-fisted backhand gave him fits.
Still, Baghdatis began yelling, pounding his chest, drawing some boos.
"That's life," he said. "It could be unfair, but so many things happen that are unfair in life. ... You can't cry about it."
An animated Baghdatis shook off a shanked overhead by laughing and crossing himself, and when Agassi eventually trailed, Graf covered her mouth, the picture of worry.
Baghdatis finished with 86 unforced errors, 39 more than Agassi, an eight-time major champion and one of only five men with a career Grand Slam.
Because Agassi went only 8-7 this year before the Open, he's unseeded, which is why he had to face someone ranked as highly as Baghdatis so early.
Not only did they put on quite a show, but Agassi also provided the day's signature moment even before swatting a ball: After a morning practice session, he autographed a teen's forehead with a marker, making sure the final "i" was dotted.

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