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As Martin falls apart, focused Agassi hangs on

By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 1, 2000


WIMBLEDON, England -- Todd Martin was skewering Andre Agassi. Ahead 5-2 in Friday's fifth set. Just a glory shot from dynamic Centre Court erasure of Steffi Graf's guy, one of the top players in the world. Evil wheels spun in Martin's graying, 29-year-old head. "I thought about 1996, hoping it would be positive motivation," he said. "I was determined a lousy memory wouldn't re-occur."

In that Wimbledon semifinal four years ago, Todd led 5-1 in the fifth against MaliVai Washington but suffered a 10-8 meltdown. Martin never has won a Grand Slam. Last summer he achieved the U.S. Open final, facing Agassi, but crumbled 6-2 in the fifth set.

Agassi's mind also whirred Friday.

"I didn't put the label of choking on Todd for 1996," said the Las Vegas dynamo. "But being so near death in this match, I did recall what happened to him against MaliVai, never expecting it would become a factor again. But it would."

Andre's shaved-slick head beaded with perspiration. His look was somewhere between desperation and panic. Graf, a seven-time Wimbledon winner, gnawed her lower lip. Martin was playing superbly. Maybe the best of his life. "I felt beaten," Agassi said.

Then it happened. A little Todd crack, then a larger fissure. Muffing two match points. Eventually a sad avalanche of Martin artistic fractures. Fifteen thousand patrons were berserk, siding big for Andre. When a possible match-winning Martin forehand perished into the net, the cheer was deafening if not obnoxious.

"I had total control," the 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (7-3), 2-6, 10-8 loser said. "Agassi was forcing shots. I was the attacker. But tides can so quickly turn. I'm leading 5-2 in the fifth, get an ace on my first serve, but in no time I felt bad stuff happening.

"You don't really sense it until you're bleeding. Stopping it then can be extremely difficult, especially against the world's best player. I felt some tightness on serves. I'm not as athletically gifted as Andre, so I must be a thinker on court."

Soon, he thought, "No, not again."

Disintegration II, also by 10-8.

John McEnroe did British TV commentary on the extraordinary match that began Thursday evening, was delayed by rain and recharted for a Friday afternoon windup.

Afterward, the three-time Wimbledon king analyzed Agassi, last year's runner-up to Pete Sampras. "Andre is a physical oddball," McEnroe said. "In an era when players are nuts for hard, daily training routines, Agassi dances to his own drummer.

"He probably hasn't stretched since 1989. Most pros are cranked by trainers maybe twice a day. Andre gets maybe two massages a year. He wins last place in world tennis rubdowns. But what's important is that Agassi is more physically marvelous than ever."

I have a thought about the intriguing, bombastic McEnroe. It's not about tennis. Why doesn't ABC scrub Dennis Miller and hire John as third voice in the Monday Night Football booth?

I'm not kidding. Mac knows football. Better than some comedian, I would think. John speaks in a sharp, interesting way. Unlike most jocks, he is fearless in making assessments. Honest as Abe, bright as sunrise. Unafraid of angering his ballplaying pals.

Oh, back to Agassi.

When his chances seemed darkest against Martin, the son of a former Olympic boxer became a volatile mixture of mad-dog linebacker and Centre Court realist.

"I needed help from Todd, especially at 2-5 in the fifth," Agassi said. "My goal became to work my hardest, making it tough for him to serve out the win, hoping to maybe put some pressure on Todd.

"You need a certain mentality when you've not been executing well and there's not a lot of hope. When he couldn't put me away, serving at 5-2, then my heart flickered anew. Todd gave me a little opening. It was time to crash through."

Again, there was Martin disaster at Centre Court. As entertaining as the bounceback Agassi success might've been, it's not joyous to see a good, venerable, classy talent like Todd with added Wimbledon burn marks on his soul.

He's so open, well-spoken and admirable, you'd like to see Todd holding a Grand Slam trophy over his head. Instead, the noggin aches. A grand opportunity earned, one more time, becomes English ashes.

Agassi had a grin of relief. He moves on to Wimbledon's third round today against Jerome Golmard of France. As for Todd Martin, all he could say was, "It could've been me again."

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