- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2003

NEW YORK — This wasn’t tennis. This was basic, elemental, man against nature.

OK, so maybe it was more like man against mist. And ultimately, man against hamstring.

Wet weather wreaked havoc at the U.S. Open for a second straight day, and as Andre Agassi and Taylor Dent attempted to play their fourth-round match last night, a persistent drizzle drifted down, transforming the courts of the National Tennis Center into the world’s largest slip ‘n’ slide.

“It’s difficult for everybody, all the guys, the fans,” the top-seeded Agassi said.

“It’s not a good situation all around. But you realize you don’t have to come out here and play great tennis. You just have to come out here and play a little better than your opponent.”

Twice they came off. Three times they came back on.

And when it was over — when Agassi secured a 6-7 (5), 6-4, 7-5 victory at Arthur Ashe Stadium in a rain-delayed match that was supposed to take place Monday — he was simply relieved to have survived a contest that saw Dent retire with a sore right hamstring.

“It’s not great to win like that,” Agassi said. “For it to finish on short notice is unfortunate for Taylor, for the fans. But you just try to move on.”

Dent, a 22-year-old American, hurt his leg a few days ago during practice, an injury that was aggravated by the stop-and-start play. He received a pair of rubdowns from ATP trainer Doug Spreen and played much of the second and third set with a wrap that stretched from his right knee to mid-thigh.

“Coming on and off of the courts with the rains didn’t help it,” Dent said.

The rhythm-wrecking mist was inescapable, making toughness — mental and physical — the order of the evening. With Dent on serve and trailing 4-5 in the third, coach Brad Stine flashed his charge a sign to quit.

But Dent fought on, limping and staggering, and only retired after he dumped a backhand volley into the net to drop the set.

“I thought if I could win that set, I’d give it a go,” Dent said. “But I wasn’t going to turn it around.”

Early on, it was Agassi who struggled with rain-induced turnarounds. With Agassi leading 5-4 and serving for the first set, the first delay set in; when they returned, Agassi was clad in a light jacket.

His subsequent play reflected the cool conditions: Agassi hit a double fault to yield a break point, then struck two errant backhands — the second into the net — to surrender a break.

That set up a tiebreak — and as tournament referee Brian Earley looked on, furrowed brow topping crossed arms, wetness again became a factor. Dent led 5-3 when Agassi began to slide his feet along the suddenly slick baseline, gesturing toward chair umpire Norm Chryst.

Chryst came down, walking the court before briefly stopping the match. Dent had words with Earley; Agassi rose from his courtside seat, making his way to the baseline.

Play resumed, and when Dent hammered a second serve into Agassi’s body to win the tiebreak 7-5, he pumped his fist and yelled, “C’mon!”

Dent’s bouncing celebration was short-lived. Chryst again stopped the match, telling the players, “I don’t want you guys to get hurt.”

“The steady mist just drives us crazy,” Earley said during the subsequent delay. “It makes the lines slick. It makes the court slick.”

After half an hour, Agassi and Dent were back on the court — and this time, the court remained dry. Agassi took advantage of Dent’s suddenly sore hamstring, notching two breaks to take the second set.

For Dent, the loss was a disappointing finish to his best Open run, which saw him upset Chile’s Fernando Gonzalez.

Still, he looks to have a bright future, if for no other reason than his genes: His father, Phil, was a former top-20 player and Australian Open finalist; his mother, Betty Ann, was once ranked in the top 10.

“The best returner in the world was having a tough time breaking me,” Dent said. “I feel like my game is getting better and better.”

Agassi, of course, hopes that the best is yet to come.

“For me, now, it’s about getting home, getting some food, getting some rest,” the 33-year-old Agassi said. “And coming back out ready to go.”

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