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STICH STEPS UP TO U.S. OPEN SEMIS

Twelve days into the U.S. Open, the spotlight is on Andre Agassi. Michael Stich couldn't be happier.

"Let everybody think Agassi's supposed to win," Stich said. "I like that."Stich, at No. 4 the highest seed left in the men's field, grabbed a spot in the semifinals with a 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (7-9), 6-4 victory over Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman on Thursday night. His semifinal opponent will be Karel Novacek of the Czech Republic, who defeated Peru's Jaime Yzaga 6-2, 6-7 (7-9), 6-1, 5-7, 6-3.

Super Saturday's other semifinal will pit Agassi against ninth-seeded Todd Martin, guaranteeing an American will be in Sunday's title match.

Today, the women's semifinal matched top-seeded and defending champion Steffi Graf against No. 7 Jana Novotna, while No. 2 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario was paired against No. 8 Gabriela Sabatini. The women's final will be played Saturday.

Today's schedule began with the men's doubles final: Jacco Eltingh and Paul Haarhuis of the Netherlands against Australians Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde.

On Thursday, Elna Reinach of South Africa and Patrick Galbraith of Tacoma, Wash., teamed to win the mixed doubles championship, defeating Novotna and Woodbridge 6-2, 6-4.

The Stich-Bjorkman battle matched big servers who are as comfortable at the net as they are at the baseline. The difference between the two was slight.

"I was serving very, very badly," said Stich, who had 15 double-faults to go along with 13 aces. "Right now I'm really, really tired. All the credit to Bjorkman, the way he kept fighting. He never gave up. Not many guys are doing that.

"Today I played my worst match of the Open. But it's very important to me that I made it into the semis, that I stayed in there."

Bjorkman, who upset fifth-seeded Stefan Edberg enroute to his first Grand Slam quarterfinal, jumped on Stich's monstrous serves, taking the ball early and sending the 123 mph serves screaming back across the net, sometimes for outright winners, sometimes setting up easy volleys.

"Normally when I serve like that, the people either hit the fence or hit it in the net," Stich said of Bjorkman's returns. "I haven't seen anybody who just takes it inside the baseline, just comes in."

It appeared at first that it was going to be an easy night for Stich. He took the first two sets, then grabbed a 4-2 lead in the third. But Stich's erractic serving gave Bjorkman a chance, and the Swede made the most of it.

Stich's loss in the tiebreaker cost him his first set of the tournament, and the way he was serving it seemed he could quickly lose another.

But he broke Bjorkman to take a 3-1 lead in the fourth set. After struggling through another poor service game before holding, Stich broke his opponent again for the match.

Bjorkman's dream evaporated on match point in the 10th game of the fourth set when his reverse overhead volley landed just wide.

"You're disappointed that you lost," Bjorkman said, "but I have to be happy with my tournament here. It was really fun to play."

Yzaga upset defending champion and top-seeded Pete Sampras in the fourth round. Against the veteran Novacek, however, Yzaga played sloppily. In all, he sprayed 73 unforced errors in a tedious match that took nearly 31/2 hours.

"The Sampras match took a lot out of me," Yzaga said. "I was sore yesterday and I was sore today. It was hard."

Novacek, in the U.S. Open semifinals for the first time, was just a shade better than Yzaga. He finished with 78 unforced errors while being content to hammer away from the baseline.

"It was the dream destination to break the quarterfinals of the Grand Slams, and I am endlessly happy that I did it," Novacek said. "I won 13 tournaments. I have been playing Davis Cup. I have been playing Masters. I have been playing everything basically that exists in tennis, but I never went to play semifinal of Grand Slams."

Now, he will.