- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 21, 2004

Top-seeded Andre Agassi and second-seeded Lleyton Hewitt remained on course for a seemingly inevitable meeting in tomorrow’s final of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic with victories of different sorts yesterday at William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center.

Hewitt had to fight into a third-set tiebreaker before finally subduing seventh-seeded Cyril Saulnier 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5) in a match in which each man won 107 points.

Agassi had little trouble with unseeded Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu 6-4, 6-4. Five times a champion here and ranked ninth in the world, Agassi has yet to lose a set this week after beating Hewitt to win last week’s stop in Cincinnati.

Hewitt plays fourth-seeded American Robby Ginepri, a 6-3, 7-6 (3) victor over Dutchman Raemon Sluiter, in this afternoon’s semifinal. Hewitt has won all three of their matches, two in straight sets. Agassi follows tonight against unseeded Gilles Muller of Luxembourg, a 7-5, 6-7(7), 6-2 winner over Swiss qualifier Michel Kratochvil.

Agassi has never faced the 21-year-old Muller.

At 20, Mathieu took Agassi to five sets on the slow clay of the 2002 French Open, but he didn’t have as many answers last night on the hard surface against the indefatigable 34-year-old American. The match was on serve at 4-4, 40-40 when Mathieu missed on a backhand and sent a return just long.

Agassi then served for the set at love. Mathieu ripped a backhand long to lose serve in the first game of the second set and never recovered. When Mathieu’s final return found the net, Agassi waved and bowed to each quadrant of the crowd.

“I went out there respecting his weapons but also knowing that it could be a lot different than it was on clay,” said Agassi, thinking back to their battle at Roland Garros. “I felt I was controlling most of the shots, which made my life easier. I feel great. I’m rising to the challenge of each guy, and I’m looking forward to the next one.”

When Hewitt broke Saulnier in the sixth game and then rallied from a 15-40 deficit to win the ninth game and the first set, it seemed the 23-year-old Australian would have a relatively easy afternoon despite temperatures that climbed into triple digits courtside.

However, the 57th-ranked Saulnier wouldn’t give in to the powerful, fifth-ranked Hewitt. The 28-year-old Frenchman won the first game of the second set at love to establish himself as a serious upset threat. Leading 4-3 but trailing 15-40 in the eighth game, Saulnier forced deuces with a passing shot and a blistering return before a wide backhand by Hewitt gave him his only break of the match. Saulnier, wiped out 6-2, 6-2 in their only previous meeting four years ago, then served out the set.

They proceeded on serve in the final set into the eighth game, which featured the match’s best rally before Hewitt failed to save a third sure winner by Saulnier. Down 6-5, Saulnier survived a double fault at 40-30 to force the tiebreaker.

“It was an awkward sort of match,” Hewitt said. “I couldn’t quite get my teeth into it after winning that first set. He really picked up his game. I was just trying to take care of my service games and wait for an opportunity.”

That came with Hewitt up 3-2 on serve in the tiebreaker when Saulnier rocketed a pair of serves only to have Hewitt return both and win both points, the first on a deftly soft forehand for the critical edge. Hewitt won the next point as well, which, in his words, “changed the match.” Saulnier saved two match points to close within 6-5 before hitting a forehand into the net as Hewitt thrust his strong right arm in triumph.

“It was a very good match,” said Saulnier, who came oh so close to knocking off his second heavyweight his year. He stunned Guillermo Coria in January’s Australian Open. “Lleyton didn’t give me any points. I think I can beat guys in the top 10.”

But, as Mathieu also learned, not hardcourt standouts on their favorite surface.

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