NEW YORK -- It was a cloudy day, but Andre Agassi ran his hand across the top of his shaved head to remove the sweat.
He was up a set, but Justin Gimelstob had just benefited from Agassi's back-to-back double faults for an early break in the second and Agassi knew he was in for his toughest battle of this U.S. Open, so far, before he would win, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.
It was a battle the large crowd inside Arthur Ashe Stadium was ready for. They were willing to cheer for Gimelstob, a local guy from New Jersey. They were willing to thrill with him, when he imitated Jimmy Connors' old two-fists-in-the-air stutter steps when he hit a winner. And they were willing to egg him on in the fourth set, when he dived like Boris Becker for a winning stab volley.
But in their hearts they knew Agassi would win -- that Agassi had to win. The No. 2 seed may not be the straw that stirs the drink, like former New York Yankee Reggie Jackson was, but it would definitely be the last straw, if Agassi, the last remaining marquee player, exited the U.S. Open before the second week. "It's good to be through to the second week," Agassi said.
That is about as far as he's willing to go when asked about his prospects here. He knows No. 1 Pete Sampras is out, and while that might make some players happy, he's not one of them.
Agassi startled the tennis world by winning the French Open in June, and becoming one of just five men to win all four Grand Slams in a career. But he won the French after Sampras had been eliminated.
He finished runner-up at Wimbledon -- to Sampras.
He's made it to two other tournament finals to play Sampras this summer and lost them both.
He'd like to win a Big One against Sampras and was eager to try his luck here.
"It's tough for so many people -- the fans, myself, and ultimately for Pete -- that he had to withdraw," Agassi said. "I'm just really sorry about it. Sorry for him. Sorry for tennis. It would have been an awesome time."
But with Sampras out, there is no doubt Agassi is the favorite to win and, overall, just a plain favorite.
The crowd is again cheering and whistling every time he changes his damp shirts during a match. And listening to people talk around the U.S. Tennis Center, his next Grand Slam title is all but a foregone conclusion.
Even No. 3 seed Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who won 6-1, 6-4, 6-4, yesterday, said there are only three players who can win this Open.
"[Richard] Krajicek, myself and Agassi," he said. "Those are the real guys, nobody else."
But Agassi, seven matches from a second Open title, doesn't even want to hear that.
"I got to be honest," he said. "I think that anybody that says that doesn't quite know the game of tennis, possibly even sports. Because we all know we can't phone in the results and the highest seed left wins. You've got to go out there and play. All these guys are tough. I mean, they all can beat you. I'm certainly aware of that."
That's why Agassi was wiping sweat yesterday. Gimelstob may have looked like another easy victim in the first set, but once he regrouped and settled down, he gave his friend -- and sometimes tennis tutor -- a test.
"I was feeling the pressure of him on [my] second serve," said Agassi. "He was standing in tight. He was taking some good cuts at it."
Agassi raised his game in the third and fourth sets, and Gimelstob's energy began to wane. Distractions set in. A baby bawled on his second serve at break point and he double-faulted. The blimp motored over the stadium on his next service game at 30-15, and he double-faulted again.
"I asked the umpire what the chances were that we could get that thing out of here," said Gimelstob, 22. "He said, 'Not good.' "
Afterward he said he was pleased with the way he had competed and hoped Agassi would reign, as he did here in 1994.
"He's playing great tennis and I'd love to see him win," Gimelstob said. "I think he deserves a lot of credit and respect for the way he's made these comebacks. And he has mine."
He also has Jennifer Capriati's. Capriati has been trying to put together her own comeback and has reached the round of 16. Yesterday she said Agassi has been an inspiration for her.
"I saw Agassi win the French Open," she said. "A lot of people never thought he could still do that, and it showed me that any time is a good time to win a Grand Slam -- whether you're the youngest or the oldest or whatever."
Tomorrow, Agassi will try to advance to the quarterfinals by beating Arnaud Clement, the Frenchman who forced him to five sets at the French.
"Clement is a tremendous competitor who moves incredibly well," Agassi said. "I have no intention of taking this one lightly."
Men's singles today
Gustavo Kuerten (5) vs. Goran Ivanisevic
Todd Martin (7) vs. Magnus Larsson
Women's singles today
Martina Hingis (1) vs. Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario (10)
Venus Williams (3) vs. Mary Joe Fernandez
Men's singles, third round
Andre Agassi (2) def. Justin Gimelstob, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4; Yevgeny Kafelnikov (3) def. Jonas Bjorkman, 6-1, 6-4, 6-4; Marcelo Rios (10) def. Jan Kroslak, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4; Richard Krajicek (12) def. John van Lottum, 6-4, 6-1, 6-4; Arnaud Clement def. Nicolas Kiefer (15), 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2.
Nicolas Escude def. Xavier Malisse, 6-3, 6-2, 6-1; Vince Spadea def. Laurence Tieleman, 6-2, 4-6, 6-7 (4-7), 6-2, 7-6 (7-3); Andrei Medvedev def. Lleyton Hewitt, 3-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3.
Women's singles, third round
Lindsay Davenport (2) def. Amy Frazier, 6-1, 6-1; Monica Seles (4) def. Ai Sugiyama, 6-2, 6-3; Mary Pierce (5) def. Angeles Montolio, 6-0, 7-6 (7-4); Serena Williams (7) def. Kim Clijsters, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5; Julie Halard-Decugis (9) def. Amelie Cocheteux, 5-2, retired; Jennifer Capriati def. Nathalie Tauziat (11), 6-3, 1-6, 6-1; Conchita Martinez (16) def. Elena Dementieva, 6-2, 2-6, 6-4.
Sabine Appelmans, def. Magui Serna, 0-6, 6-1, 6-3.