- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 7, 2003

NEW YORK — A battle of the ages? A changing of the guard? An old dog learning new tricks while refusing to go gently into that good night of youth being served?

Uh-uh. Nope. And not a chance.

Gentlemen, stop your cliches: The much-anticipated cross-generational clash between Andy Roddick and Andre Agassi isn’t going to happen. At least not at this year’s U.S. Open.

Roddick held up his end of the equation, rallying to defeat Argentina’s David Nalbandian 6-7 (4), 3-6, 7-6 (7), 6-1, 6-3, but Agassi fell to Spain’s Juan Carlos Ferrero 4-6, 3-6, 6-3, 4-6 in yesterday’s semifinals at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

In a rain-wracked tournament that has turned into a war of attrition, Roddick celebrated his first appearance in a major final in fitting fashion — slumped over, clutching his racket, less exhilarated than simply relieved.

“I thought I had a little more left in the tank than [Nalbandian] did,” said Roddick, the No.4 seed. “To his disadvantage, he’s had to play a couple more matches than I have the last few days. I just tried to keep fighting.”

Roddick next faces Ferrero, who won the French Open and is in the third Grand Slam final of his career. Today’s championship is the first meeting between the two.

“I didn’t play so good a couple of years in the U.S. Open,” said Ferrero, whose previous tournament best was a fourth-round appearance three years ago. “This time I’m playing very good tennis on the hard courts. I hope to continue in the finals.”

As does Roddick. After falling in the Open quarterfinals the last two seasons, the 21-year-old entered the afternoon as the tournament’s hottest player with a tour-best 17-match win streak.

Still, he needed every one of his 38 aces — plus a couple of close calls and some help from a partisan crowd — to outlast Nalbandian, who took a two-set lead and held a match point during the third set tiebreaker.

Trailing 6-5, Roddick uncorked a 138 mph service winner wide. On his next serve, he blasted a 138 mph ace, his 28th of the match.

At 7-7, a fan shouted “out!” on Nalbandian’s backhand that just clipped the sideline. Roddick returned the ball, but a visibly unnerved Nalbandian pulled a halfhearted forehand into the tape.

Roddick followed with a set-wining forehand volley, leaving Nalbandian to grumble to the chair umpire.

“Sometimes the crowd, you hear so much,” said Nalbandian, a Wimbledon runner-up last year. “It’s some important points, maybe somebody calls out or something. It’s difficult.”

A 21-year-old who has moved up the ATP rankings behind powerful, almost hypnotic groundstrokes, Nalbandian had his way during the first two sets, blocking back Roddick’s serve and winning a number of long baseline rallies.

As the match wore on, however, the effect of playing three times over the last three days — once more than Roddick — began to wear on Nalbandian. Deep shots began to float. Easy volleys failed to clear the tape. Down 4-3 in the fifth and facing a double break point, Nalbandian hit a backhand pass that was called just wide.

Afterward, Nalbandian said he had strained an abdominal muscle and injured his heavily taped left wrist in his previous match, a four-set win over Younes El Aynaoui.

“It’s difficult to play very tough matches three days in a row,” he said. “It’s also difficult to play against Andy. He’s a great player.”

For his part, Roddick had enough energy to uncoil a 133 mph serve in the first game of the fifth set — and later jokingly catch a ball in his mesh baseball cap after a point.

“I have one match to go,” Roddick said of being fatigued. “I don’t have an entire tournament. That’s the way I’m looking at it. It gives me the opportunity to win a Grand Slam title. I would have liked to have been out in three [sets], but that’s the way I had to do it today.”

No matter what happens today, Ferrero will become the world’s top-ranked player next week — and against current No.1 Agassi, the French Open champion showed why.

Deceptively tough serves. Line-stinging baseline blasts. Quick feet and quicker returns. Early on, the 23-year-old Ferrero moved forward at every opportunity, yoking Agassi around the backcourt in the manner of, well, Agassi — and if the 33-year-old top seed ever felt as though he was facing a younger version of himself, he hardly could be blamed.

“He moves incredibly well, hits both wings, big cross court, big up the line, flattens it out, plays it high with spin,” Agassi said. “He knows how to play big points. If you don’t have the power to neutralize that somehow, he’s gonna control from the word go.”

Two days ago, the third-seeded Ferrero sardonically noted that he had yet to play on the Ashe Stadium show court. In retrospect, that may have been an oversight by the tournament’s Star-Spangled schedulers: In his third round victory over Argentina’s Juan Ignacio Chela, Ferrero hit the shot of the tournament — a blind, between-the-legs winner that wouldn’t be out of place in Agassi’s hometown of Las Vegas.

At 1-1 in the third set, Ferrero did it again, sprinting to the baseline to smack an Agassi lob between his legs. Agassi responded with an ill-advised volley; Ferrero hit a running forehand winner that elicited a standing ovation.

“When I got the lob over his head, I started moving forward,” Agassi said. “And I said, ‘Why am I doing this? I don’t really want to hit a volley. Screw it, I’ll do it anyhow.’

“Then he made a shot between his legs. As it left my racket, I said, ‘I told you so, you jerk.’”

Beyond Ferrero’s shotmaking, Agassi was undone by a scattershot serve. Though Agassi hit 12 aces, he dropped serve to open the match and was broken five times in 10 games en route to a two-set deficit.

At 4-4 in the fourth, Agassi smacked a wild forehand well wide, losing serve at love and effectively squelching the possibility of a comeback.

“I wasn’t serving too well, wasn’t getting any free points on my serve,” Agassi said. “With two good baseliners, whoever is getting more free points with the serve has a pretty big advantage.”

Though Agassi fell short in his bid to become the oldest Open champion since Ken Rosewall in 1970 at the age of 35, he said he plans to try again next year.

“I put myself in a position to give myself a look at the basket,” he said. “I guess there’s some positives. I just got to go to work. Something would have to change drastically for me not to be back.”

In the meantime, the day belonged to Roddick.

“I’m pumped,” he said. “I’d like to go one step further.”

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