NEW YORK - The great respect and affection for Andre Agassi poured forth from every level inside Arthur Ashe Stadium yesterday afternoon as he strode to mid-court to take his signature victory bows.
It had little to do with saluting a man who, at 35, had consecutively beaten both budding flowers of American tennis to reach the final of the U.S. Open.
This was about memories, and surely among those standing and applauding there were some who there in 1986 when Agassi, then a cocky, wild-haired kid, went down in four sets to a British player named Jeremy Bates.
Two decades later, he's not going away, at least not as long as he can play as he did yesterday in taking down 22-year-old Robby Ginepri, 6-4, 5-7, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, to reach today's championship match against No. 1 Roger Federer.
"To be in the final at 35 just means you're going to have to put up with me a lot longer," Agassi teased reporters afterward.
No one objected.
Nor could there have been many people, at least non-Australians, unhappy to see Federer beat back Lleyton Hewitt, 6-3, 7-6 (0), 4-6, 6-3, for the ninth time in a row to set up a classic final.
There are few concessions Agassi has had to make to his age, but rest is one, and that he won't get here because the schedule has the men playing the semifinals and final on consecutive days.
"I might surprise you," Agassi said, smiling. "I feel good and I'm certainly looking forward to it. Mentally, just being out there is going to take care of that. And physically, I'll be able to make somebody earn it, that's for sure."
His victory came in a match with more than one plot line. On the one side, there was the aging master with eight Grand Slam titles, whose game this year has been outstanding when his back hasn't been acting up.
On the other, there was Ginepri, the quiet and sometimes stubborn young man from Marietta, Ga., who is already into the third phase of his career and who is, along with James Blake, suddenly nearly equal to the United States' top player, Andy Roddick.
Ginepri has gone from prodigy to unhappy and unmotivated and then to resurrected in the last two months, winning 19 of 22 matches during the U.S. hardcourt season this summer. Against Agassi, he took his opponent to the wall -until the middle of the final set.
Ginepri had momentum after winning the fourth set without facing break point, but Agassi once again, as he had in five-set wins over Xavier Malisse and Blake, played his strongest tennis in the final set.
Agassi broke to go up 4-2 when he hit an outstanding, deep return off a perfectly placed serve and followed it up with a winning drop shot. From there, he would win his final eight service points, closing it out with an ace at the 2-hour, 47-minute mark.
It was a patchy match in which neither player could sustain momentum. Agassi's backhand was off form, but he covered it up with strong forehands and great serving down the stretch.
For Federer, it was his 12th consecutive U.S. Open triumph and 13th straight winnng match in a Grand Slam tournament after capturing Wimbledon and, though he had to face 13 break points against Hewitt, and now 33 for the Open, he didn't sound concerned.
"It's been all right. I've been winning my matches and against good players, so, when I needed it, it was there. But I think, overall, [it] definitely wasn't my best serving day," Federer said.
Today's match will be filled with nostalgia and emotion centering on one of the most popular players in tennis history, and Federer has to come to grips with that.
"No, it's not just another match, obviously," Federer said. "It's very special. Last year already was incredible to play Lleyton in the final. Now, it's Andre. I think it's even more emotional.
"There's more in it, especially in the final, not the quarterfinals last year. So, I guess this is one of the biggest matches in my career. I better be playing well."
Agassi seemed to show the proper amount of bravado in his comments on the final,, but was also candid about Federer in comparing him to Pete Sampras, who defeated him in three finals here.
"The guy plays great defense, plays great offense. He has a great hold game and he has a great break game. You play a bad match against Pete and you lose, 6-4, 7-5. You play a good match against Pete and you lose, 6-4, 7-5," said Agassi.
"You play a good match against Federer, you lose, 6-4, 7-5. You play a bad match, you lose, 1 and 1."
If Federer wins today, he will be the first man to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open two years in a row since Don Budge of the United States in 1937-38.
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.