- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 6, 2003

NEW YORK — Blood on his shirt. Blood on his shorts. Scabs on his knees. A wrap on his thigh. Even a scarlet-soaked bandage dangling from his thumb.

Never mind a tennis match — Guillermo Coria looked like a man on the wrong end of a barroom brawl. And that was just in the first set.

Grinding down his game but ailing opponent, Andre Agassi advanced to the U.S. Open semifinals by dispatching Coria 6-4, 6-3, 7-5 in a quarterfinal match yesterday afternoon at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

The top-seeded Agassi next faces Spain’s Juan Carlos Ferrero, a four-set winner over Australia’s Lleyton Hewitt.

“There’s four guys that can win this thing, and I’m very excited to be one of them,” Agassi said. “Go out there tomorrow, work really hard, get through the match somehow and then deal with the next obstacle.”

In the other half of the men’s draw, Andy Roddick faces Argentina’s David Nalbandian, as Roddick swamped the Netherlands’ Sjeng Schalken 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 and Nalbandian topped Morocco’s Younes El Aynaoui in four hard-fought sets.

“Hopefully, it’s not over yet,” said Roddick, who advanced to his first Open semifinal and third major semifinal of the season.

In a rain-ravaged tournament that is fast becoming a war of attrition — the eventual champion will have played and won a minimum of three matches in three days — Roddick and Agassi were relieved to notch relatively quick, straight-set victories.

“At this stage of the ballgame, it’s gonna be pretty difficult on all the players,” said Agassi, 33. “Certainly the easier you can make it on yourself, the better off you are.”

Indeed. With the skies over the National Tennis Center finally clearing, ATP trainers Doug Spreen and Bill Norris had their hands full. Literally.

There was Spreen, feeding Hewitt painkillers while massaging the former Open champion’s sore left hip. There he was again, rubbing Schalken’s aching legs. And there was Norris, taping El Aynaoui’s left knee.

Then there was Coria. A 21-year-old Argentine who grew up emulating Agassi, the No.5 seed entered the afternoon with a mixed record against his idol, stunning Agassi at Roland Garros but retiring with a blister during a fourth-round match at the Australian Open.

Early on, it looked as if Coria might be forced to repeat his Down Under dropout. Already suffering from a tight left hamstring, he began to bleed from a deep gash on his right thumb, which he alternately sucked and wiped across his Clorox-white shorts and T-shirt.

During a first-set changeover with Coria leading 2-1, Spreen came out to administer proper first aid. Saying “it’s not going to be a quick fix,” he spent the next five minutes bandaging the wound, which Coria opened while reaching into his racket bag for a callus-cutting tool earlier in the morning.

“I didn’t know where that was from,” said Agassi, who won his fourth-round match when Taylor Dent retired with a sore hamstring. “But I wasn’t counting on anything being easy out there. I was ready to go to work. Tell you what — even when he’s limping, he’s still moving pretty well.”

No kidding. When Coria wasn’t staring at his thumb or stepping gingerly on his achy leg — a frequent occurrence when he lost points — he scampered along the baseline with aplomb. Fought off four match points. Even hit a half-dozen backhand winners down the line, the same shot he used to punish Agassi at the French Open.

“I still had to deal with what he was bringing to the table,” Agassi said. “He looked like he was hitting the ball pretty strong off both sides. I would have cut my finger if it would have made me hit my shots like that.”

Instead, Agassi settled for a more sanitary strategy, dictating points by taking the ball early and moving Coria around the court. As the match dragged on, Agassi’s shots became deeper; as Coria slowed, the angles on those shots became more pronounced.

Agassi earned a first-set break after Coria sent a forehand wide, then another by chasing down a drop shot before striking a well-placed lob. In the second, Agassi scored his sole break with a drop shot of his own, a tricky ball that left Coria smacking his racket against his tightly wrapped left thigh in frustration.

“It was going to be toe-to-toe,” Agassi said. “I wanted to make the match physical, make him step up and make big shots, and that’s what I did.”

Roddick never gave No.12 Schalken a chance to make shots, big or otherwise. Riding a Tour-leading 17-match win streak, Roddick broke last year’s semifinalist five times while hitting 15 aces and winning 88 percent of his first-serve points.

Last year Roddick was undressed by eventual champion Pete Sampras in the quarterfinals. This time around, he hopes to celebrate his recent 21st birthday with his first Grand Slam title.

“Going into this tournament, I felt like I should make a good run,” Roddick said. “I wasn’t just hoping to make a good run. That’s probably the main difference.”

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