Martin keeps it up, joins Agassi; No. 7 hammers Pioline, No. 2 ousts Kafelnikov for all-American final; U.S. Open


NEW YORK -- Before this tournament began, everyone expected two Americans to be playing in today's U.S. Open men's final. But no one expected No. 2 seed Andre Agassi to be playing No. 7 Todd Martin.

The expectation was for No. 1 Pete Sampras to be in Martin's place, but Sampras was forced to pull out with a back injury before playing even one match here, opening the door to someone else.

That someone turned out to be Martin.

"I said before the tournament, that if I was in the finals, I would like to be playing Pete, assuming he was the best player on the other side of the draw," said Agassi, after beating No. 3 Yevgeny Kafelnikov, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3, in the semifinals yesterday.

"But when he pulled out, I still wanted to play the best player on the other side of the draw. And it's Todd Martin. He's done some incredible things to get here. It's been great watching him."

Martin, who had to receive intravenous fluids after one of his matches and has spent long periods in the training room after every match, kept his hopes alive for this Grand Slam title with a surprisingly easy, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 victory over Cedric Pioline, an unseeded, 30-year-old Frenchman.

Although there have been 62 all-American men's finals in the history of the U.S. championships, the Agassi-Martin meeting will be only the fifth of the Open era (post 1967).

And in this one, there couldn't be two men of greater contrast.

Agassi will be playing in his third Grand Slam final of the year, while Martin will be playing in the second of his nine-year career.

Agassi will be seeking his fifth Grand Slam title, having won the French Open in June to become only the fifth man in the history of men's tennis to win all four Slam events -- the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open -- in a career.

He will be trying for his second U.S. Open title. The first one came in 1994, when he beat Michael Stich, 6-1, 7-6, 7-5.

For Martin, a victory would be his first major title, and do a lot for his recognition factor.

Agassi, of course, is the consummate showman, while Martin is Mr. Nice Guy.

"I'm glad I'm playing Andre," Martin said. "It means a lot more people will be watching."

To get to this final, Martin has had one opponent retire due to injury, but he has also had to win two five-set thrillers and a challenging four-setter before reaching yesterday's semifinal. In the semi, he needed just 1 hour, 36 minutes to do away with Pioline.

"Todd just played too good," Pioline said. "Every time I had a break point or an opportunity, he came up with big serve or the big shot. I think if he plays like this in [the] final, he has a chance."

The only obvious similarity between Agassi and Martin is how they're playing, a fact both acknowledged yesterday.

"I've felt that I'm playing the best tennis of my life at this tournament and over the last nine or 10 months," Martin said. "But I don't have to play great tennis tomorrow to win. I only have to play better than the other guy. That's what I'll try to do. We'll see what happens."

Agassi said he also feels on top of his game.

"At this time of my life, it's the best I've ever played," he said. "I think you can only be asked to do so much in each situation. I felt good about the way I played today but I always hope to get better."

Yesterday, when Kafelnikov rolled through him, 6-1, in the first set, Agassi upped his intensity.

"The things I admire about Andre is the power he performs with from the baseline when he's really on top of his game, and his ground strokes," said Kafelnikov, who was frustrated by both Agassi and the swirling wind. "It's incredible what he is trying to do on the court, and that is what makes him so special.

"I said Agassi, me or [Richard] Krajicek are only ones who can win [the] title." continued Kafelnikov, who will be No. 2 in the world tomorrow. "Andre is in good condition. It is that and his strength that is going to make the difference [in the final]. All of 1999 is his year."

Men's final

Andre Agassi vs. Todd Martin

When: Today, 4 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Seeds: Agassi No. 2, Martin No. 7

Head-to-head: Agassi leads, 9-5.

Fact: It's the first all-American men's final since 1996, when Pete Sampras beat Michael Chang.

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