NEW YORK - No. 1 seed Lleyton Hewitt seemed to be everywhere on the court. His legs churned with the speed of an antelope running for cover. He got to almost every ball Younes El Aynaoui sent over the net. And he scored at least one point when it was El Aynaoui who appeared to hit a winner.
For Hewitt, everything was possible yesterday, as he moved into the U.S. Open semifinals with a 6-1, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-2 victory.
It was the last game of the final set. Hewitt served and El Aynaoui returned a brilliant spinning drop shot. Hewitt, who had already tracked down several of El Aynaoui's well-delivered dropped volleys, charged from the back of the court. It appeared Hewitt would not reach this ball in time, but, it didn't matter - the ball rose up and spun back over the net.
What could El Aynaoui, the first Moroccan to reach the U.S. Open quarterfinals in the Open Era (1968-present), do but smile.
"He surprised me how fast he runs," El Aynaoui said. "He got one or two drop shots that were really impressive."
Hewitt didn't get the spinner, but El Aynaoui knew that didn't bother him.
"He's running a lot," he said. "Faster you play, the better he plays. He's a very complete overall player. He's also serving much better now. A very tough opponent."
The free point was the first of four straight that wrapped up the match.
Andre Agassi will be the man who tries to prevent the defending U.S. Open champion from again reaching the final. Agassi, the No. 6 seed, overcame a strong performance by Max Mirnyi last night, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-5, 6-3.
The victory takes the 32-year-old Agassi, a two-time U.S. Open champion who last won the tournament in 1999, a round deeper into the draw than he managed last year, when Pete Sampras beat him in a thrilling four-setter. In that match, each set was decided by a tiebreaker.
Last night, the first set was decided by a breaker, but after that, Agassi shifted gears. With Mirnyi playing brilliantly, coming to the net at every opportunity, he was forced to lift his play.
"I thought it was a high-standard match from start to finish," Agassi said. "The first set I let slip away. I had a couple of opportunities. In the end, he raised his game and won the right points. In the second set, he donated a few opportunities back to me.
"You don't think about losing or winning a set up or a set down. You think about, 'What do I need to do here to get my teeth deeper into this match?' "
Agassi, who allowed just two break-point chances on his serve through four sets, said after his fourth-round victory over Jan-Michael Gambill, that he still had overdrive in his back pocket. Whether he found it last night or simply moved a notch closer to it may be determined tomorrow, when he plays world No. 1 Hewitt to see who advances to Sunday's final.
Currently, Agassi and Hewitt are tied for most tour wins this season with four. Two of Hewitt's wins came after beating Agassi.
"He's difficult for everybody," Agassi said. "He's been No. 1 in the world now for almost a full year. He makes you play a great match to beat him. I've just got to come out there and do it."
One of the reasons nearly everyone else on tour - at one time or another - has struggled against Hewitt is because of his buzz-saw style of play. He knows only one game plan - attack, attack, attack.
Which is exactly what he did yesterday.
"I get up for big matches," Hewitt said. "I thought I came out of the blocks well today, put it to him straight away that I'm defending champion here and it's going to take a hell of a match from him to beat me out there.
Hewitt played almost flawless tennis in the opening set, but fell behind 5-3 in the second-set tie-breaker. El Aynaoui looked poised to take the set and make it a close match.
But he could not close it out, wasting two set points with a forehand and a backhand error. Then it was Hewitt's set-point chance and he sent a blistering backhand cleanly past El Aynaoui.
At that point, it was too much for El Aynaoui, who didn't finish his fourth-round match until 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, a situation El Aynaoui said sapped his leg strength and his energy.
Hewitt said he did not know of El Aynaoui's late-night work, but nodded with sudden understanding.
"I didn't think he'd get tired today," Hewitt said. "I've seen him before and I've seen him play a lot of tough five-setters, especially on clay, which is probably a more demanding surface. His fitness is pretty good.
"But then, I thought maybe halfway through the fourth set he was starting to struggle a little bit out there, which obviously had probably a lot to do with the other night - just throwing his whole routine out the window, I guess."