PARIS -- The French, it seems, are traditionalists. They love Steffi and Arantxa and Monica and Andre. And for the French and the ones they love, yesterday was a good day.
And perhaps, though all those players advanced to the French Open semifinals, it is Andre Agassi who had the best day of all.
The lone American left in the men's draw, Agassi walked onto Court Central here late yesterday afternoon, knowing the last big gun in his path to Sunday's final had been eliminated. He walked off an hour and 13 minutes later with a 6-2, 6-2, 6-0 victory over qualifier Marcelo Filippini and a semifinal berth against Slovakian Dominik Hrbaty.
Hrbaty had eliminated No. 9 seed Marcelo Rios, 7-6 (7-4), 6-2, 6-7 (6-8), 6-3, and afterward said: "To me, there is no difference playing a challenger, satellite tournament or here. The matches are the same. I have to beat everybody anyway."
Hrbaty, who had never been past the fourth round in a Grand Slam tournament before, obviously has nothing to compare this to. But Agassi, a three-time Grand Slam winner and a runner-up here in 1990 and 1991, obviously knows what he's been missing.
He is in a Grand Slam semifinal for the first time since the 1996 U.S. Open.
"I'm thrilled, to be honest," Agassi said, after bowing -- north, south, east and west -- and blowing kisses to the crowd. "To do this at the French, it's something special. To get to the semifinals, in a place that has been such an obstacle for me in recent years, it's nothing short of a great chapter in my career."
Another who seems to be writing another great chapter in her career is No. 6 seed Steffi Graf. Yesterday, she beat No. 2 Lindsay Davenport, 6-1, 6-7 (5-7), 6-3, and moved into the semifinals against No. 3 Monica Seles, a 6-1, 6-4 winner over Conchita Martinez.
In the women's other quarterfinal matches, No. 1 Martina Hingis beat Barbara Schwartz, 6-2, 6-2, and defending women's champ and No. 7 seed Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario advanced with a 6-2, 6-4 victory over Sylvia Plischke.
It is not only Agassi's first semifinal since 1996, but also the first semi for any American man at the French since Pete Sampras in '96.
To some, it may seem amazing that Agassi and not Sampras is just two wins away from the French title. But while the French clay seems to be driving Sampras slowly out of his mind, it has run into a steel trap in the showman from Las Vegas.
Yesterday, Filippini, a 13-year tour veteran who until this tournament had made it past the second round at a Grand Slam once before, was suffering from a stomach muscle pull, and Agassi got an early, easy lead. It was the kind of match in which Agassi could have lost his concentration, gotten lazy and gotten in trouble. Instead, he tightened his grip, bore down and finished off his opponent.
By the middle of the third set, the French crowd, which had tried to encourage Filippini early, had turned on him. Fans booed loudly as he again failed to hold his serve.
"It is not nice to get booed on Center Court," Filippini said. "But I have no regrets. He played a heck of a match. He killed me on the court, but I was not going to retire. I don't know how to do that."
Asked about the way he carved up Filippini, Agassi tried to deny it. "Do I look like I can hurt anybody?" he asked playfully, and then got serious.
"There are many different ways to beat a guy," he said. "When you get a guy to a point where he feels discouraged out there, you've done a good job. I felt real strong about the way I played, but I don't think I was really asked to do any miraculous shots. I felt like I just went to work on him. If I see the window light at the end of the tunnel, then I'm going to go for it."
Going for it here means being patient and being willing to do the work to get the results. Agassi said a player can't expect to come to the French Open and finish a point in four- to six-ball rallies.
"It moves up, maybe to eight or 12 balls," he said. "Anytime I'm having more than a 12-ball rally, I feel like I'm not quite accomplishing the goal I want. Anytime it's shorter than eight, I feel like I'm not accomplishing it. That's my window.
"A lot of balls look fat, look like you can just end the point, and it's not really time to try to do that. You have to take another body blow, and sometimes there's two or three extra body blows before the one real ball presents itself. That's where the discipline comes in. It's the discipline you have to maintain until you can actually come to recognize the true opportunity."
The window of opportunity looks pretty wide open for him to at least reach the finals. There? Who knows?
Agassi said he is ready to make the most of this chance, but since Fred Perry and Don Budge won all four Grand Slam tournaments in the 1930s, only two other men have managed to do so in their tennis careers. Right now, Agassi is positioned to become No. 5.
He won Wimbledon in 1992, the U.S. Open in 1994 and the Australian Open in 1995. The only Grand Slam he lacks is this one.
"I don't know what winning here would mean historically speaking," Agassi said. "But I would say that it would be certainly the greatest thing I could achieve."
Pub Date: 6/02/99