NEW YORK - The match points kept coming. One. Two. Three. Four. No. 1 seed Andre Agassi looked across the net in his quarterfinal match at the U.S. Open in near exasperation.
Guillermo Coria, 21 and the No. 5 seed, his hamstring hurting and his thumb bleeding from a cut he suffered before the match, was making Agassi stay longer at Arthur Ashe Stadium than he had hoped.
Agassi needed an extra game and a fifth match point before he could force Coria into a forehand error and claim the victory, 6-4, 6-3, 7-5.
"As you get older, it gets harder," Agassi said. "And, your opportunities get rarer. You're more aware of situations out there. I think that can affect you in a nervous way on some days. ... Today, when I got to match point, I had to try to find a way to win it. I would have loved to have won it on the first point, but getting nervous on your match points and not playing it the way you want is a great problem to have."
For Agassi, who said Coria has proven that playing the best brings out the best in him, it was just the first day of a series of challenges.
His dedication to conditioning, his penchant for perfection and his drive to be the best have culminated in the world No. 1 ranking at age 33, making him the oldest No. 1 player in the history of the ATP computer rankings.
It also has made him this tournament's No. 1 target. Agassi is like an aging gunfighter in the Old West. There always seems to be another young, fast racket-slinger taking aim at him.
Yesterday it was Coria. Today, in the semifinals, it will be No. 3 seed Juan Carlos Ferrero. Tomorrow, if Agassi survives, it will be either No. 4 seed Andy Roddick or No.13 David Nalbandian. None of them are older than 23.
Ferrero, the French Open champion, earned his semifinal date with Agassi by beating Lleyton Hewitt, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-1. Though Hewitt struggled with a pain above his hip, which inhibited his serve, he said even if he had been 100 percent, he wasn't sure he could have beaten Ferrero yesterday.
"He was great," Hewitt said. "I felt like I went up another notch from [Thursday] ... But he mixed up his serve extremely well. He's getting tougher and tougher on these kind of courts [hard]."
If Ferrero, 23, beats Agassi, he will claim the world No. 1 ranking for himself.
"It will be big if I do it," he said. "But with all the crowd support with Andre and all his experience here, it will be very tough for me."
Roddick, the fastest-rising young American, who celebrated his 21st birthday here last weekend, made it to today's semifinal with a decisive, 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 victory over Sjeng Schalken and will play Nalbandian, also 21.
Nalbandian defeated Younes El Aynaoui, 7-6 (2), 6-2, 3-6, 7-5, in one of the most entertaining matches of the day.
Besides the burden of having to beat each other, each man is fighting the results of 3 1/2 days of rain. For Agassi, that was too much rest, having finished his fourth-round match Tuesday night. For others, the wear and tear of having to play four straight days of best-of-five matches to win the title.
For Agassi, more than a decade older than the remaining competition, it may be a longer, harder road even if his consecutive days of play will be three instead of four.
"Welcome to my world," said Agassi, smiling. "You know, it's been this way from the beginning and there is nothing different about winning here. It's not easy. There's four guys that can win this thing and I'm very excited to be one of them.
"My plan is to go out there, work really hard, make my opponent as miserable as I can. Maybe then, at the end, you look up at the scoreboard and see that you got through it."
Andre Agassi (1), United States, def. Guillermo Coria (5), Argentina, 6-4, 6-3, 7-5. Juan Carlos Ferrero (3), Spain, def. Lleyton Hewitt (6), Australia, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(5), 6-1. Andy Roddick (4), United States, def. Sjeng Schalken (12), Netherlands, 6-4, 6-2, 6-3. David Nalbandian (13), Argentina, def. Younes El Aynaoui (22), Morocco, 7-6(2), 6-2, 3-6, 7-5.
Kim Clijsters (1), Belgium, def. Lindsay Davenport (3), United States, 6-2, 6-3.
Justine Henin-Hardenne (2), Belgium, def. Jennifer Capriati (6), United States, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4).