They were the perfect antidote to slam-bang tennis, Andre Agassi winning in three sweet sets, Michael Chang in just one and a half, each showing why baseliners are dominating this year's U.S. Open.
The way they played Saturday, Agassi and Chang looked as if they were sharpening up for the final. Too bad one must bump off the other in the round of 16.Agassi beat the tougher opponent, No. 12 Wayne Ferreira, 7-5, 6-1, 7-5, and he did it in thoroughly convincing fashion. Ferreira was so frustrated he was reduced to childish fits of racket-throwing and ball-whacking.
Chang was equally dominant but got away in half the time when Jim Grabb retired with an aggravated shoulder injury while trailing 6-1, 4-1. Chang played his best match so far, serving like a bigger man and chasing down almost everything.
It is no coincidence that Agassi and Chang are playing so well. So, too, are other baseliners like No. 3 Sergi Bruguera, who beat big Marc Goellner 1-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (7-4) 6-1, and No. 13 Thomas Muster, who beat Thomas Enqvist, 6-0, 6-4, 6-2. Richey Reneberg, an unseeded baseliner who upset Boris Becker in the first round, reached the fourth round with a 2-6, 6-1, 7-6 (7-4), 6-2 victory over Richard Fromberg.
The same pattern has developed on the women's side. Defending champion Steffi Graf is coming in only on short balls, and she saw a lot of those as she put away 23 of 24 net approaches in a 6-2, 6-3 victory over Radka Bobkova. Graf had a nose bleed in practice but experienced no trouble during the match.
No. 4 Mary Pierce, who practically lives on the baseline, beat Judith Wiesner 6-2, 6-4.
No. 6 Lindsay Davenport tried rushing the net, but was too slow and got caught out of position too often as she converted only 22 of 33 approaches in a 6-3, 7-6 (7-1) loss to No. 44-ranked Mana Endo.
No. 7 Jana Novotna, who charges the net at Wimbledon, mostly stayed back to beat Patricia Hy 6-1, 6-2. The same was true of No. 11 Amanda Coetzer, who beat Mariaan de Swardt 6-1, 6-3, and Magdalena Maleeva, who beat Shaun Stafford 6-3, 7-6 (7-3).
The hardcourts and slightly fuzzier balls are a little slower this year, creating a nice balance between the speed of Wimbledon's grass and the rusty, dusty rallies of the French Open's clay.
Even serve-and-volleyers like defending champion Pete Sampras are taking notice, staying back more instead of rushing in as they do all the time at Wimbledon. Sampras has the ability to play different ways, so the subtle change of speed this year shouldn't affect him. For Becker, the changes surprised him and drove him out quickly.
Agassi, unseeded with a No. 20 ranking, is thriving here so far, though getting past Chang won't be easy.
"Michael is playing some great tennis and I am definitely going to have my hands full against him," Agassi said. "But when I am hitting the ball well, concentrating this well, I like my chances against anybody.
"I wasn't scared to take chances at the right time (against Ferreira). I'm using all parts of my game right now. That's when I'm playing my best tennis, when I'm using the angles and the lines."
A year ago, Agassi lost here in the first round. He reached the final in 1990, only to get crushed by Sampras.
"When you compete at a high level, then you want the players to respect you for what you can do and you want them to fear having you on their side of the draw," Agassi said.
Chang won't take Agassi for granted but is feeling pretty confident himself after boosting the power in his game with upper body work and practice on his serve. Getting off easy against Grabb didn't hurt.
"Sometimes if you play a five-set match it can really take its toll on you, physically," Chang said. "Then all of a sudden, things start to hurt here and there. I am actually going to go out and hit a little bit more because I've come from having two days off, so I want to be able to try to stay sharp."