Agassi proves he's still a contender

In a surprise upset at the US Open, Andre Agassi defeated James Blake to advance to the semifinals Saturday.

Like every good Vegas act, Andre Agassi, it seems, has an encore. By the measure of his hometown Strip, this might seem slight fare indeed - a bald, 35-year-old father of two sweating in his tennis trunks with nary a spangle or feather headdress in sight.

But this is New York and the US Open, and during the past fortnight his racket has been more miraculous than any magician's wand. Even before he faces Robby Ginepri Saturday, Agassi has added to a legacy of eight Grand Slam titles perhaps the most memorable turn of all - an improbable run to the semifinal in Flushing Meadows.

Like a Madonna of the hard courts, he has once again reinvented himself in this final - and most intriguing - act of his career. No longer the floppy-haired heartthrob or even the rededicated pro, Agassi has become tennis's conscience as its elder statesman and one of its most dedicated philanthropists - and this week has not only been a celebration of the genius of his ground strokes but also an appreciation of one of the sport's true gentlemen.

"If there's anyone I'm cheering for it's Andre," said James Blake in a press conference early Thursday morning, only minutes after losing to Agassi in five sets in Wednesday's quarterfinal match.

Agassi has always had people to cheer for him. Early in his career, he was James Dean with fantastic hair and a thunderous forehand. Never mind the actual tennis, his mere appearance made Flushing Meadows feel like a Skid Row video.

Yet years after he was shorn of his locks and his A-list entourage, it was still Agassi - not native New Yorker Blake - who worked the crowd into a lather Wednesday. On one hand, it is an odd sort of love affair. In the place of the Man With the Mane is an almond-eyed workaholic with all the on-court enthusiasm of "Rain Man."

For the first two sets of Wednesday's match, Agassi slunk around the court in slump-shouldered meekness as Blake pummeled him. But even then, there were seeds of the Vegas showman. Agassi lost the first two sets. He was a break down in the third. He was a break down in the fifth. He lost the first three points of the tiebreaker. All that remained was for the ballboy to cover Agassi with a towel at the changeover, James Brown-style.

Yet since Agassi dropped the rock-star persona in the late 1990s, Agassi has entertained with his skill - becoming only the fifth man ever to win all four Grand Slam titles in his career and bringing Flushing to its feet Wednesday.

In a frenzied fifth set, he uncorked his inhibitions like a backcourt matador, fending off the Blake's sizzling shots with his own bolo-whip strokes.

"This is what you work so hard for," said Agassi after the Blake match. "This means as much to me as being in the finals.... There are few moments that can be this special."

Clearly, there was an affection for tennis's Grand Old Man, who became the fifth-oldest man to make the US Open semifinals. Like Jimmy Connors, who ignited New York when he made it to the semifinals in 1991 at age 39, and Pete Sampras, who capped his career with a US Open title three years ago, Agassi is penning a Hollywood script - coming back from a injury at the French Open at an age when most tennis stars are honing their gardening skills.

But beneath the romance of the oldest - and most beloved - player at the US Open making it to the final weekend, there is also an appreciation of the man that Agassi has become both on and off the court. Four years ago, he founded a charter college preparatory school for disadvantaged children in Las Vegas. Earlier this year, he switched shoe sponsorship deals to bring more money to his foundation, which supports children's causes.

In short, he's just the sort of person that schoolteachers and mothers say should finish first. This weekend, he will have the chance.

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