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On brink, Agassi survives


WIMBLEDON, England - Andre Agassi was rushing. He was playing like a man with his mind a mile away. He was being distracted by pigeons, cell phones and Todd Martin.

Hope fading, forehands flailing, serves sailing long, Agassi was on the verge of being pushed right out of Wimbledon.

"It's hard not to feel like you're really against the wall," Agassi said. 'Then, at that point you're just thinking, 'Just make the guy earn it.' "

In the end, it was Agassi who earned it, saving two match points, retrieving two service breaks, rallying from 2-5 down in the final set and breaking Martin's heart en route to a ferocious 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (3), 2-6, 10-8 triumph yesterday.

"I was very lucky to get back into that match," Agassi said.

Great comeback or great crumble, the match kicked Wimbledon into a higher gear. Parts of America's tennis present and future were on display, while its greatest player was waiting in the wings.

Out on Centre Court were the old pros, Agassi and Martin, slugging from the baseline in a tantalizing match that gripped Wimbledon's cognoscenti.

Over on Court 1, in a race for the final 16, Jan-Michael Gambill got caught in a fiery first-set tie-breaker against a diving, digging, daredevil named Paul Goldstein of Rockville. Gambill won the tie-breaker and took the match, 7-6 (12-10), 6-2, 6-2.

"He wasn't going to give an inch," Gambill said. "He made me hit tons and tons of balls."

But Gambill hit harder and purer and reached the round of 16, where he'll meet No. 9-seeded Thomas Enqvist, who defeated Christian Vinck, 6-3, 6-7 (4-7), 2-6, 6-3, 6-3.

Meanwhile, Pete Sampras, the six-time Wimbledon champion, got an extra day to rest his injured left foot and shin when his match against Justin Gimelstob was postponed by darkness.

Today, it will be Pete and a parade, as Sampras is scheduled to play on Centre Court after a parade of past champions bridges the centuries at Wimbledon's "Millennium Championships."

Agassi-Martin was a match with a sprinkling of grass-court grandeur and Wimbledon weather. With shaved head, tennis whites and quick steps, Agassi was a vision of tennis purity. Martin looked as if he were pieced together, with tape on his left ankle and right knee and a sweat band on his right wrist.

The match began Thursday under gloomy skies, breaking for rain with Martin up 1-0 in the fourth set after Agassi slipped on the grass.

"I was just laying there trying to stall, hoping it would rain more," Agassi said, laughing. "I went over and toweled off, just worked it like a veteran."

He also played it like a veteran with tournament referee Alan Mills, at first venting his anger that the match wasn't called earlier, but making sure to make an apologetic phone call to the official yesterday.

Agassi said he had been concerned that, on the slick grass, he could get hurt - just like he did in the grass-court tune-up at Queens Club.

When the players came out for yesterday's re-start, it was Martin who was on fire, while Agassi was cold.

Martin grabbed the fourth set, raced to the lead in the fifth, and appeared to have the match under control after Agassi double-faulted a break point to 2-5.

"Once I lost my serve the second time, I really didn't think there was a whole lot of hope left," Agassi said. "You want a five-set match to be ended by someone winning it, not just missing. I told myself to just get the ball in play.

"If somehow you can break him here, at least you'll make him deal with the pressure of having to serve it out. From there on, it just unfolded."

Martin should have been in command, dealing out slice backhands that bewitched and befuddled the power-hungry Agassi.

Instead, Martin was courting danger and dredging up ghosts. It was on Centre Court in the 1996 semifinals, when he led MaliVai Washington, 5-1, in the fifth set. But in the biggest match of his life, Martin fell apart and lost the last set, 10-8. Back then, he said he stopped breathing and his feet stopped moving.

This time, he admitted, doubts crept into his mind and he started thinking of 1996, telling himself, "Don't do it again."

But he did.

Feature matches

(Seeds in parentheses) Today's men's singles

Pete Sampras (1) vs. Justin Gimelstob

Alexander Popp vs. Gustavo Kuerten (4)

Tim Henman (8) vs. Hicham Arazi

Jerome Golmard vs. Andre Agassi (2) Today's women's singles

Nathalie Dechy vs. Venus Williams (5)

Paola Suarez vs. Lindsay Davenport (2)

Monica Seles (6) vs. Sarah Pitkowski

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