With the former president courtside, Sebastien Grosjean reaches the French semifinals.
©New York Times
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 7, 2001
PARIS -- Of all the spectators around center court on Wednesday, Bill Clinton's arrival had the strangest effect on Andre Agassi.
More than Sebastien Grosjean's shirt-flapping speed, Clinton's movements were linked to the bizarre end of Agassi's Grand Slam buzz. Maybe it was an absurd coincidence, but the ups and downs of Agassi's 1-6, 6-1, 6-1, 6-3 quarterfinal loss at the French Open had nothing to do with reason.
Before Clinton was greeted with a standing ovation by the French as he entered the stadium in the second set, Agassi had been unflappable, picking on the jangled nerves of Grosjean.
But after Clinton sat down in a box 25 feet behind the baseline, Agassi came undone on Grosjean's home clay, losing six of seven games to the revived Frenchman.
For three games at the start of the fourth set, the former president departed briefly. In that time, Agassi pulled out a devilish drop shot on his way to breaking Grosjean's serve and took a 2-1 lead. Clinton returned, and Agassi won one more game.
"Sounds like you have it all figured out," Agassi said in an edgy tone.
Reporters saw him make eye contact with Clinton, but Agassi insisted he did not see Clinton arrive or notice the former Commander in Chief. Milling near the players' lounge area at Roland Garros a half-hour after the match, Clinton smiled at the odd parallel.
"I was bad for him," Clinton said. "I was bad luck. When I left, he won three games. I hated to come back."
The weird corollaries aside, Agassi simply was not himself on the court. He was not as methodical, as measured or as savvy as usual. With the vulnerable Grosjean in front of him, hearing cries of "Do it for France" from the crowd, Agassi could not put him in a position to fold under the pressure. Instead, Agassi let Grosjean off the hook with erratic form that led to 52 unforced errors.
"Don't ask me anything," Agassi's coach, Brad Gilbert, snapped after the match. "I said, don't ask me anything."
Maybe there was no explanation for the way Agassi's brief flirtation with a Grand Slam title ended. After winning the Australian Open in January, Agassi's pursuit of the French ended when Grosjean served an ace on match point. In a group leap, the French jumped out of their seats like a jack-in-the-box.
"It was amazing; I saw everybody stand up," said Grosjean, who faces Alex Corretja, a 7-5, 6-4, 7-5 winner over Roger Federer, in the semifinals Friday. "Actually, to play on this court, it's like a dream."
The center court scene was unreal for Agassi, too. The tournament was not scripted to end like this. If Agassi had lost a tight quarterfinal match, it would have been more understandable. But Agassi made his irritable exit without creating the least bit of suspense. In 1 hour, 49 minutes, Agassi's French Open was over.
"About three matches higher," Agassi said. "Three matches would have been nice, three more."
On every point that might have lengthened the match, providing Agassi a chance to outlast Grosjean's deep pocket full of winners, Agassi lapsed.
"His speed puts a lot of pressure on you because you have to hit not just quality shots, but you have to hit a number of them," Agassi said. "The conditions today, I couldn't come up with it."
The same fans who usually act as Agassi's emotional support system were roaring for Grosjean. He did not let them down as he served out the fourth set for the match.
As Grosjean bathed in the celebration, Agassi rushed off the court. Clinton shook hands until he worked his way to the stadium exit.
"We're going to have to invite him back for the semifinals," Grosjean said of Clinton.