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Day Six: Agassi and Kafelnikov Eye the Final
by Christopher Gerby

Bjorkman/Rafter vs. Adams/De Jager
Doubles: Semifinal
Court Central

Playing his final doubles event of the summer (if not longer), Patrick Rafter took to Court Central for a semifinal test. He and partner Jonas Bjorkman figured to be in tough against David Adams and John-Laffnie de Jager. Those two may not be household names (De Jager's name was spelled "John-Laffite" in a Toronto newspaper a few days ago), but they can stay with just about any team in the world. Already this week, Adams and De Jager had taken out the legendary "Woodies" (Todd Woodbridge/Mark Woodforde) and the #1 seeds (Jared Palmer/Leander Paes). Adams is considered by many of his peers to be the most serious doubles player on the circuit, while De Jager holds the distinction of being perhaps the only man ever to play doubles with both Martinas (pairing with Hingis at Wimbledon and Navratilova in World Team Tennis). They're not flashy, but they do the little things right: hitting deep second serves, communicating well on the court, putting returns in play, etc.

Bjorkman/Rafter is a very capable team in its own right, of course, and they broke serve for an early 2-1 lead in this match. Rafter, serving second for his team, held serve for a 3-1 lead. Jonas Bjorkman
Adams and De Jager were looking a bit overwhelmed -- John-Laffnie bricked two volleys and David double faulted, putting them behind 0-40 in the fifth game. They fought back and even reached game point, but Adams finally dropped serve when he was unable to make a low forehand volley. However, Bjorkman then dropped serve for 4-2, keeping the underdogs in the hunt. The seventh game was a mini-marathon, De Jager helping his cause with a couple aces. Bjorkman disputed one of them, turning to the linesman and making an exaggerated "out" gesture, maybe just to show him how it's done. It was to no avail, as De Jager finally held after five deuces. Rafter and Adams also held, making it 5-4. Bjorkman then served his way to a 40-0 lead and triple set point. Adams staved off the first with a winning backhand down the line, but Rafter won the set 6-4 with a sharp forehand volley.

After the teams exchanged three relatively easy holds, Adams drilled a very nice backhand passing shot to earn break point against Bjorkman. De Jager then delivered a backhand pass of his own, which Jonas barely got a racquet on. It was an important break for Adams and De Jager -- their first of the afternoon -- but the thrill was only temporary. Adams was broken at love for 3-2, the game ending when Rafter hit De Jager with a volley (and raised his hand to apologize). An exchange of holds left Adams and De Jager ahead 4-3 in the set and actually up 56-54 in total points. They got two more break points against Bjorkman in the eighth game, but a Rafter volley and Bjorkman serve took care of that. On game point for Bjorkman/Rafter, De Jager returned a Bjorkman fault, nearly hitting Rafter with the ball. Patrick groaned and doubled over as if it had hit him, then indicated he was just joking. Returning the second serve, De Jager almost hit Rafter again! This time the ball sailed long, ending a Bjorkman hold for 4-4. Adams and Rafter holds made it 5-5. De Jager double faulted for 0-30 in his next service game, but he and Adams rolled through five consecutive points to grab a 6-5 lead. Bjorkman then closed out a hold with a lunging backhand volley, drawing a big ovation as he took the set into a tiebreak.

After the first three points of the 'breaker went with serve, Adams netted a high (but not difficult) forehand volley to fall behind 1-3. Rafter had to scramble back for a ball on the fifth point, hitting an off-balance forehand into the net. After a Rafter volley caught the sideline and forced a De Jager error, the teams switched sides at 4-2 Bjorkman/Rafter. Rafter knocked off another volley -- this one a clean winner -- for 5-2. Adams won his service points for 4-5 and then hit a running backhand pass up the middle, taking back the mini-break and knotting matters at 5 points all. Rafter struck back with a service winner for 6-5. Facing match point, De Jager punched a backhand volley into the net. It was a well earned 6-4, 7-6 victory for Bjorkman and Rafter, sending them into the final. After struggling with his serve on Friday, the Aussie heart throb was the only player not to face a break point in this match.

Rafter lobbed a ball into the crowd before leaving the court. Literally seconds after he and Bjorkman headed into the tunnel, Andre Agassi sprinted out for his practice session. I can understand his urgency (his singles semifinal was just an hour away), but his appearance presented a bit of a problem for the ushers. Stade du Maurier is supposed to be completely cleared of fans during the break between afternoon and evening sessions, but -- after Agassi whipped off his shirt and started hitting groundstrokes -- spectators started rushing back down to get a look. It was quite a mess, with fans snapping photos as they were being told to vacate the stadium. Meanwhile, Jonas Bjorkman made his way out to Court 10 to participate in a "celebrity match." Actors Alec Baldwin and Christopher Plummer were here today...but they weren't the celebrities playing. It was Bjorkman and Linda Malo playing against Jocelyn Robichaud and Francois Massicotte. I've heard of neither Malo nor Massicotte, but they must be fairly popular in Canada -- the Court 10 stands were packed even before Bjorkman arrived.


Andre Agassi vs. Yevgeny Kafelnikov
Singles: Semifinal
Court Central
Yevgeny Kafelnikov
While Andre Agassi was wowing the fans with a late afternoon practice session on Court Central, Yevgeny Kafelnikov was warming up in relative obscurity on Court 7. He placidly hit with coach Larry Stefanki, showing no sign that he even noticed the 20 or so fans who were looking on. Half an hour later, Kafelnikov was trading strokes with the sport's biggest star in a packed stadium. Yevgeny was the #1 player in the world for a spell this year, but the fans were here to see Andre Agassi. More than any other player -- even hometown favorite Sebastien Lareau -- Agassi puts butts in the stadium seats. When the Las Vegas native sets foot in this stadium, the outer courts empty.

Agassi won the toss and chose to receive, but Kafelnikov rolled through a pretty strong opening hold. Agassi faced a couple break points in Game 2, arguing over a Kafelnikov return which skidded off the baseline (and was properly called good). Kafelnikov ended the next point with a shot to the same area of the court, this one landing just long and making the fans happy. Agassi went on to hold for 1-1, but Kafelnikov sent a message with a love hold of his own. Getting his third break chance of the evening in Game 4, Kafelnikov guided a backhand return down the line. First blood to the Russian -- 3-1. Kafelnikov played out of his mind in Game 5, scoring an ace and three winners. He then broke serve again for an imposing 5-1 lead. Seemingly every shot off the #4 seed's racquet was either hitting a line or coming close. Agassi has rarely looked helpless on the court this season, but the Wimbledon final was one such occasion and this was turning into another. Serving out the set, Kafelnikov didn't blink, closing out a love hold with an ace. Gasps could be heard as Kafelnikov put a 6-1 first set win in the bank.

The first couple games of Set 2 were holds, but Agassi then found himself backed into a 15-40 corner. That game was a long one and Andre had to do some commendable scrambling before finally winning it with an ace. Kafelnikov had little difficultly holding for 2-2 -- this was looking more and more like his match to lose. Down 40-30 in Game 5, Yevgeny made a daring charge to the net and flicked a stab volley winner for deuce. His doubles experience definitely paid off there. Agassi then netted two groundstrokes in a row, losing the game and giving Kafelnikov a big break advantage at 3-2. Kafelnikov continued to play nearly perfect tennis, smacking an ace for 15-0 and a forehand winner right into the corner for 40-15. An Agassi backhand into the net then made it 6-1, 4-2. The American's quality of play seemed to be declining, but he quickly righted himself with back-to-back aces in a love hold for 3-4. Agassi had made his stand, but he still couldn't find the secret to breaking Kaflenikov, who jumped out to a 5-3 lead. Short of clubbing him in the knee with a lead pipe, there may have been no way to derail Yevgeny on this evening.

Andre Agassi
Agassi scraped through a difficult game, holding for 4-5. The fans gave him a loud blast of support after the changeover and he responded by winning the first point of Game 10. It was just a brief interruption in Kafelnikov's brilliant display, though. Still placing every groundstroke about as well as humanly possible, Kafelnikov hit a cross-court winner for 15-15, an ace for a 30-15, a volley winner for 40-15, and a victory-clinching forehand. Totally fulfilling the promise he shows only at times, Kafelnikov claimed a 6-1, 6-4 upset win in just 63 minutes. If he can play like that on Sunday, the title is probably his. Afterwards, I asked Agassi if -- playing his fourth match in three days (after reaching the Los Angeles final last week) -- fatigue was any factor in this loss. "No, I felt rather good. I only played 50 minutes yesterday and that helped after playing two matches in the same day. Yevgeny had a tough match last night. So, you know, there's certainly no excuses today. He deserves all the credit."