- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 6, 2005

NEW YORK — Three points from the end of a sunbaked five-setter, the man draped over the net like a wet noodle was 10 years younger than Andre Agassi.

Maybe to rub it in, maybe because Agassi felt rejuvenated, he hopped on his toes as Xavier Malisse, gasping and all but gone, peeled himself off the net and returned for the final moments of punishment.

Agassi shrugged off Malisse’s brave last stand — a 26th ace — then crushed a forehand into the corner to set up double match point. At 35, Agassi tries not to waste too many opportunities to stomp on an opponent he has down, though he missed a couple when he was two points from winning in straight sets.

This time he unleashed a backhand that the lunging Belgian whacked long, giving Agassi a 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 4-6, 6-2 victory yesterday and making him the oldest U.S. Open men’s quarterfinalist since Jimmy Connors’ legendary run to the semis in 1991 at age 39.

Age and balky back aside, Agassi suddenly is looking like a serious contender to go at least as far as Connors did that year. At No.7, he’s the highest seeded player in the bottom half of the draw. He next faces unseeded fellow American James Blake, who came back from injury and illness to knock off No.2 Rafael Nadal in the third round and beat No.19 Tommy Robredo in the fourth, 4-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-3.

A year ago Blake was recovering from partial paralysis of his face, caused by zoster, and watched the Open on television, uncertain whether he would play again. Asked what he would have thought then if told he would be playing Agassi in the quarters this year, Blake laughed.

“I don’t think I would have been able to speak,” he said. “I think my year would have gotten worse, because I would have had a heart attack.”

Blake, the first black American man to reach the quarters at the Open in 23 years, made a startling rebound from fractured vertebrae in his neck 16 months ago and the zoster that followed just after his father died of cancer. He’s been the feel-good story of the tournament, along with the seemingly ageless Agassi.

“He’s always been a real dangerous player,” Agassi said of the 25-year-old Blake, who beat him en route to his first tour title at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in the District three years ago but has lost three of their four meetings, the last in 2003. Blake won his second title in New Haven two weeks ago.

“You never know when somebody comes of age or game,” Agassi said. “Some people, it happens a lot earlier than others. … There’s no question he’s doing something better than he used to do.”

Agassi still has the legs, the will and the game to beat anyone. He had enough left to drill three straight aces — two at 120-plus mph — and a service winner in his final serves against Malisse.

“Even a blind dog can find a bone every now and then,” Agassi joked. He’s better known for his returning prowess than his serves, but he’s rarely been broken this tournament.

Yet Agassi knows that the herniated disc in his back can flare up at any moment and shoot sciatic nerve pain down his leg, as it did when he lost in the first round of the French Open. He took a cortisone shot in the spine, missed Wimbledon, and came back to win a tournament in Los Angeles and reach the final of another in Montreal. That was enough to give him hope that he might just have enough left to challenge for the Open title he won in 1994 and 1999.

Winning a five-setter only raised Agassi’s hopes.

“It’s a great sign,” he said. “I’ve trained hard. This is why you work so hard, so that physically you can do it. Something like a nerve, you never know when it’s going to be an issue. I’ll keep my fingers crossed from this day forward. I play by different rules now. My body plays by different rules. I need to listen to that.”

Age didn’t hamper Mary Pierce or Lindsay Davenport, the two oldest women left in the tournament.

In a reversal of the French Open final, the 30-year-old Pierce upset No.7 Justine Henin-Hardenne 6-3, 6-4 to reach the quarters here for the first time since 1999 and only the second time in 13 trips to the U.S. Open. Pierce, seeded No.12, had never won a set in four matches against the Belgian on clay, grass and hard courts.

The 29-year-old Davenport reached the quarterfinals with a 6-0, 6-3 romp over France’s Nathalie Dechy. Davenport next plays sixth-seeded Elena Dementieva, last year’s runner-up, who beat No.11 Patty Schnyder in straight sets. No.3 Amelie Mauresmo beat No.19 Elena Likhovtseva, also in straight sets.

Eighth-seeded Guillermo Coria of Argentina outlasted Nicolas Massu of Chile 6-4, 2-6, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-2, in a match that lasted 4 hours, 32 minutes and featured plenty of trash-talking. During one changeover, an official even stood between the two as they yapped at each other from their chairs.

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