- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2003

PARIS — Andre Agassi sat in his chair a few extra seconds at each changeover, resting his body and composing his mind.

He also was stalling, letting the kid who was giving him a hard time wait around on court before play could resume.

Agassi needed every drop of energy and resolve to reach the French Open’s third round yesterday. He rallied from a monumental deficit and overcame some surprisingly ragged crunch-time nerves to oust Croatian teen Mario Ancic in five sets.

“Sometimes, you just have to find a way. You have to dig deep and come up with the goods,” said Agassi, who double-faulted three times when serving for the match. “As long as you’re still in, it’s a new tournament. I have a new life right now.”

The eight-time Grand Slam champion lost the first two sets and trailed in the third before cobbling together a 5-7, 1-6, 6-4, 6-2, 7-5 comeback for his 763rd victory — sixth most in history and one more than Pete Sampras.

It’s also 750 more than Ashley Harkleroad, who took the first significant strides of her tennis life by knocking off No.9-seeded Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia 7-6 (2), 4-6, 9-7 in 3 hours, 8 minutes.

Without a Grand Slam match win before this week, Harkleroad could have folded after letting a 5-1 lead evaporate in the final set. Hantuchova, a quarterfinalist at the last three majors, even served for the match at 6-5.

“I just kept really calm. I just said, ‘OK, Ashley, you’re not going to lose this. You’re going to fight,’” she said. “I’ve always been very feisty. A fighter. Ever since I was 8.”

As Harkleroad watched Hantuchova’s final forehand float wide, she let out a shriek and sprinted to the courtside seats to hug … her agent. Nike signed Harkleroad in early 2001 and invited her to a celebratory pasta dinner last night.

Hantuchova also has a deal with the company, and the players created a mirror image, with identical sky-blue outfits. Hantuchova wasn’t thrilled, saying, “I don’t really like it when there are two players wearing the same thing on the same court.”

Serena Williams doesn’t have to worry about that — she designs her own outfits. They tend to be as unique as her skills, which carried the defending champion to her 30th straight Grand Slam victory, 6-3, 6-2 over Marie-Gaianeh Mikaelian of Switzerland.

Ancic was wearing a layer of burnt-orange clay by the end of his match after tumbling to the court in the fourth set while diving for a shot.

He’s only 19, but Ancic already has shown promise. He upset Roger Federer at Wimbledon last year and reached the fourth round at the Australian Open in January. With his booming serve, Ancic plays a bit like his mentor, 2001 Wimbledon champion Goran Invanisevic, and talks like him, too.

“When you are playing with such a big player, every chance, every small chance you have is like a whole planet,” Ancic said, holding his thumb and index finger together. “It’s such a big thing.”

Agassi is about the biggest big-match player on tour these days, and he managed to bounce back after twice being down a break in the third set. At 33 — the French Open’s oldest entrant — he knows all about how to get by on a tough day. This was his fifth career victory after a 2-0 deficit in sets, his third at Roland Garros: He did it in the 1999 final and in last year’s fourth round.

The atmosphere was raucous around Roland Garros, as it usually is on the third day of the French Open. Tickets are set aside so tennis clubs can bring children because schools have half-days on Wednesdays.

Dozens of boys gathered near the court, pens and paper at the ready for autographs, during the match between Harkleroad and Hantuchova.

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