NEW YORK (AP) — Three points from the end of a sunbaked five-setter, the man draped over the net like a wet noodle was 10 years younger than Andre Agassi.
Maybe to rub it in, maybe because Agassi felt rejuvenated, he hopped on his toes as Xavier Malisse, gasping and all but gone, peeled himself off the net and returned for the final moments of punishment.
Agassi shrugged off Malisse’s brave last stand — a 26th ace — then crushed a forehand into the corner to set up double match point. At 35, Agassi tries not to waste too many opportunities to stomp on an opponent he has down, though he missed a couple when he was two points from winning in straight sets.
This time he unleashed a backhand that the lunging Belgian whacked long, giving Agassi a 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 4-6, 6-2 victory yesterday and making him the oldest U.S. Open men’s quarterfinalist since Jimmy Connors’ legendary run at 39 to the semis in 1991.
Age and balky back aside, Agassi suddenly is looking like a serious contender to go at least as far as Connors did that year. At No. 7, he’s the highest seeded player in the bottom half of the draw. He next faces unseeded fellow American James Blake, who came back from injury and illness to knock off No. 2 Rafael Nadal in the third round and beat No. 19 Tommy Robredo in the fourth, 4-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-3.
A year ago Blake was recovering from partial paralysis of his face, caused by shingles, and watched the Open on television, uncertain if he’d ever play again. Asked what he would have thought then if told he’d be playing Agassi in the quarters this year, Blake laughed.
“I don’t think I would have been able to speak,” he said. “I think my year would have gotten worse because I would have had a heart attack.”
Blake, the first black American man to reach the quarters at the Open in 23 years, made a startling rebound from fractured vertebrae in his neck 16 months ago and the shingles that followed just after his father died of cancer. He’s been the feel-good story of the tournament, along with the seemingly ageless Agassi.
“He’s always been a real dangerous player,” Agassi said of the 25-year-old Blake, who beat him en route to his first tour title in Washington three years ago but has lost three of their four meetings, the last in 2003. Blake won his second title in New Haven two weeks ago.
“You never know when somebody comes of age or game,” Agassi said. “Some people, it happens a lot earlier than others. … There’s no question he’s doing something better than he used to do.”