- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 17, 2002

Hapless patsies. Outclassed overachievers. Spunky, hopeless underdogs.

During his 14 years at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, Andre Agassi has come across every variety of early-round fodder and dismissed the lot like so much rubbish.

Last night, however, the refuse was nowhere in sight. Yet while Agassi had to sweat his way to a hard-fought 6-7 (8), 7-6 (5), 6-3 victory over Thomas Enqvist on Centre Court at the William H.G.Fitzgerald Tennis Center, the five-time tournament champion had few complaints.

After all, tougher matches U.S. Open matches are less than two weeks away.

"When you're out there, you say, 'I can live without this,'" Agassi said. "But at the end, you realize that this is what helps you win. Dealing with tough situations, digging down, getting more out of yourself than you anticipated. It's great preparation."

With the victory, Agassi advanced to a semifinal meeting with No.6 seed James Blake, a 6-4, 6-4 winner over No.4 seed Alex Corretja. A 21-year-old American who has risen to No.33 in the world this season, Blake is one win away from his third Tour final of the season.

"It's nice to be playing on the weekend," Blake said with a laugh. "I'm not used to it. It's a lot more fun. The locker room is cleared out, there's a lot more space, I have a few more friends calling me."

Agassi and Blake met in Los Angeles last year, with Agassi taking a 6-0, 7-6 (3) victory.

"That was before I really gained much confidence on tour," Blake said. "I didn't know how to play someone that accomplished."

For a while, it appeared that the top-seeded Agassi one of five men to win a career Grand Slam didn't know how to play someone as decidedly unaccomplished as the seventh-seeded Enqvist, a solid if unspectacular Swede whose primary credential was a 4-3 record against Agassi going into the match.

The heavy groundstrokes, the pigeon-toed stutter steps, even the occasional serve-and-volley rush none of them worked for Agassi in the first set. Instead, Enqvist simply outhit Agassi, most notably in a tiebreaker that saw Enqvist squander three set points and still come out ahead.

"[The match] could have gone either way," Agassi said. "To say the least."

Things starting going Agassi's way in the second. Serving for the match at 5-4, Enqvist surrendered a break on Agassi's forehand winner down the line.

That proved costly in the tiebreaker as Enqvist made a pair of match-altering mistakes: Down 5-4, he unloaded a double-fault; on set point, he rifled a service return that smacked the tape, bounced upward and landed on the wrong side of the net.

From there, Agassi took control. In the first set tiebreaker, Enqvist seemed to play better after donning a white headband; in the third set, a fresh T-shirt had little effect, as Agassi broke Enqvist with an emphatic, sideline-skimming overhead smash to take a 2-1 lead.

Agassi scraped out a second and deciding break at 5-3, punctuating match point with a sincere if restrained fist pump.

"I wish every match could start two hours into it," Agassi said. "I feel that's when I settle in, feel good about my shots and my game. And I feel that he lost a step you see daylight and you start focusing in."

Tell that to Blake. Like Agassi, the young American had to play from behind, the unfortunate side effect of trailing 3-0 at the start of each set.

"I worked on that with my coach beforehand, just get behind and fight back," Blake said jokingly. "It's much easier. Actually, when I started out, I didn't know what to do. I was getting killed."

Down 4-2 in the second set, Blake's game came alive, sharp shots and swift movement replacing errant swings and so-so anticipation. Blake broke Corretja at love, scythed through his next service game and broke the former Legg Mason champion again, this time on a punishing forehand and a return winner.

Visibly geeked, Blake pumped his fist to the delighted crowd, which responded with shouts of "Let's go, JB!" The final game was a fait accompli, and on match point, Corretja sent a ball high and long.

Perhaps caught up in the moment, Blake, near the net, pulled back his racket and leaped to meet Corrjeta's shot an impressive, if ill-advised move before thinking better of it.

"He has a lot of things I don't," Agassi said of Blake. "Youth, phenomenal athletics, speed. And he's a great competitor. There are a lot of things about him that make him a pleasure to watch."

Indeed. Sideshow Bob dreadlocks bouncing on every ground stoke, Blake looked every bit like a future fan favorite right down to his neon yellow shirt and black-on-black socks and shoes ensemble, which contrasted wildly with Corretja's staid tennis whites.

Likewise, Blake's play dripped with youthful inconsistency. For every forehand winner came an over-enthusiastic blast into the tape; for every deft volley, a wrong-footed lunge at the ball.

At one point, Blake even attempted to follow a 72-mph second serve to net not exactly Samprasian only to watch a passing shot whistle by.

"That didn't work so well," Blake said with a laugh.

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