NEW YORK -- Wallyball took over the U.S. Open again yesterday. Not the sport that has become all the rage at health clubs, but a game that has become something of a dinosaur in men's tennis.
Its chief practitioner is a 30-year-old Australian, a journeyman who has made a career of beating the rich and famous on his favorite surface -- grass -- and has had a history of early exits at the National Tennis Center.
It's a game of old-school finesse in a high-tech age, a game in which players move their opponents around the court instead of trying to obliterate them into submission. And, suddenly, it's working at the Open for Wally Masur.
"I'm not a power tennis player," Masur said yesterday after his 6-2, 7-5, 7-5 quarterfinal victory over another unseeded player, Magnus Larsson of Sweden. "I don't hit the ball incredibly hard. I don't serve 125 [mph] and crack my forehand. These days, the guys don't construct points because they don't have to. They have the ability to win it from anywhere on the court."
Masur has not only constructed some unbelievable points in his run to tomorrow's semifinals against No. 15 seed Cedric Pioline of France, he has become something on an unlikely folk hero at the Open. It started with his comeback in the fourth round against fellow Aussie Jamie Morgan, a match in which Masur dropped the first two sets, tied it up and then trailed 5-0 in the fifth.
It was during that comeback, which included Masur winning 16 straight points, that a Grandstand Court crowd sort of adopted him as one its own. The underdog from Down Under, so to speak.
"I have a good feeling here," Masur said yesterday. "The New York crowd is a vocal crowd. It is great when they are on your side."
The crowd inside Louis Armstrong Stadium was certainly pulling for Masur against Larsson, who needed a similar comeback after losing the first two sets. But the 23-year-old who shocked Boris Becker in Tuesday's fourth-round couldn't even break Masur's modest serve. As Larsson said, "He mixed it up very well and didn't give me any chance to win."
The victory put Masur into the semifinals of a Grand Slam tournament for only the second time in his 14-year career, a career spent mostly playing in the shadow of others. For a long stretch, it was Pat Cash, who won Wimbledon in 1987. Then he was clumped in with a group of other solid, if unspectacular Australian players ranked in the top 30.
While he has had some great victories at Grand Slams -- beating Becker in the quarters at the 1987 Australian, beating John McEnroe in the second round of Wimbledon the following year -- none have come at the Open. His third-round appearances the past two years were the farthest Masur had gone in his first nine tries.
But Masur is also realistic to know how lucky he has been this year. Aside from his comeback against Morgan, Masur's road to the semifinals was paved with earlier upsets of players such as Becker and, before that, No. 11 seed Goran Ivanisevic. Masur is only the second player in tournament history to reach the semifinals without beating a seed (Gene Scott, in 1967, was the other).
"I have played a lot of Grand Slams over the years obviously," said Masur, who learned the game from Charlie Hollis, the man who launched the career of the legendary Rod Laver. "I've always been in a situation where I can't get past a Sampras or Becker, 95 percent of the time that has happened to me. But I hadn't played anyone ranked higher than me in this tournament, which is a strange set of circumstances. The pleasing thing is that the opportunity is there."
The road might have opened some more last night when Pioline, who is considered as big a long shot at Masur, beat No. 8 seed Andrei Medvedev of Ukraine, 6-3, 6-1, 3-6, 6-2, to advance to his first semifinal as well. But Sampras is still here, scheduled to play No. 14 seed Alexander Volkov of Russia tomorrow.
Masur, whose current ranking of 24 is the highest of his career, certainly knows who he is.
"Well, I'm old, but I'm not that old," he said. "I am 30, and it's increasingly become a young man's game."
With one major exception at the U.S. Open, where Wallyball is all the rage.
Men's singles, quarterfinals
Wally Masur, Australia, def. Magnus Larsson, Sweden, 6-2, 7-5, 7-5. Cedric Pioline (15), France, def. Andrei Medvedev (8), Ukraine, 6-3, 6-1, 3-6, 6-2.
Men's doubles, semifinals
Ken Flach, Alpharetta, Ga., and Rick Leach, Laguna Beach, Calif. (12), def. David Adams, Australia, and Andrei Olhovskiy, Russia (15), 6-7 (7-2), 6-4, 7-5.
Women's doubles, quarterfinals
Amanda Coetzer, South Africa, and Ines Gorrochategui, Argentina (9), def. Lori McNeil, Houston, and Rennae Stubbs, Australia (4), 6-2, 5-7, 7-5. Yayuk Basuki, Indonesia, and Nana Miyagi, Japan, def. Sandy Collins, Odessa, Texas, and Mariaan de Swardt, South Africa, 7-6 (7-3), 6-2.
Mixed doubles, championship
Helena Sukova, Czech Republic, and Todd Woodbridge, Australia (1), def. Martina Navratilova, Aspen, Colo., and Mark Woodforde, Australia (2), 6-3, 7-6 (8-6).