WASHINGTON - No. 2 seed Lleyton Hewitt was in position for the volley, poised and ready. But the ball that streaked by him for a backhand passing shot winner before he could wave his racket was just too good.
Hewitt looked across the net and took off his white hat.
"It wasn't a salute," he said. "I just needed some air."
On Center Court at the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center, things were heating up in the Legg Mason Classic.
It was the middle of the second set of Hewitt's 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5) quarterfinal victory against No. 7 seed Cyril Saulnier yesterday afternoon, and it was becoming clear that to beat Saulnier would take an incredible effort.
Not only would Hewitt have to fight the blazing sun and on-court temperatures that reached 105, but he'd also have to beat a veteran player whose forehand and backhand cross- court shots were on fire.
"He's got a game that when it's on, it's hard to beat," said Hewitt. "Today, after the first set, I just couldn't get my teeth into it. I was dominating in the first set and then he picked it up and I was just holding on . . . I'm going to have to raise my game a level in the semis."
In the semis today at 1 p.m., Hewitt is to play No. 4 seed Robby Ginepri, a 6-3, 7-6 (3) winner over Raemon Sluiter yesterday. The victory puts Ginepri in a semifinal for the first time since last year at Newport, R.I.
The other semifinal, at 7 p.m., is to feature No. 1 seed Andre Agassi, who beat Paul-Henri Mathieu, 6-4, 6-4, and Gilles Muller, who defeated Michel Kratochvil, 7-5, 6-7 (7-8), 6-2.
"So far in this tournament I feel great," said Agassi, who will be playing in his seventh straight semifinal here and 10th overall. "I'm rising to the challenge of each guy and raising my game for the next match. I feel I'm doing well and looking forward to the weekend."
Among the impressive things Agassi has been doing is serving, seemingly, harder and harder. He said last night that there is a reason other than just wanting to clobber the ball.
"It's the only place I've been where the balls are light and soft at the same time," he said. "You have to lean for your serves and you have to really hit it to get it to do anything."
Agassi, playing in the relative cool of the evening, was on and off the court in 82 minutes.
Hewitt, meanwhile, had to play the toughest match of the day to advance. It took two hours, 20 minutes in the midday sun. And he needed three sets and a tiebreaker to decide the outcome. Even then the result was in doubt until Saulnier netted his last forehand. Each man won 107 of the 214 points played.
"I was just worrying about finishing my points and holding my serve and taking an opportunity when it came," said Hewitt.
The opportunity finally came in the tiebreaker with Saulnier serving at 2-3. The 6-foot-3 Frenchman sent back-to-back blazing serves, the first at 126 mph, the second at 128 mph, over the net and Hewitt was able to get his racket around on them. He got off a down-the-line winner on one and forced Saulnier into a tricky slice backhand that fell short of the net on the other.
"It turned the match, right there," said Hewitt, who moved ahead 5-2.
Saulnier, 29, would close to within 5-6, but no closer.
"A couple of points I had a good chance," said Saulnier.