NEW YORK – Pushed to the edge of defeat by James Blake (search), Andre Agassi responded with a match for the ages that rivals Jimmy Connors' legendary run to the U.S. Open semifinals at 39.
Down two sets and a break, he took Blake to five sets, then survived a tiebreaker for a 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (6) triumph that put him in the semis — and two wins from the title he won in 1994 and 1999.
When the match finally ended at 1:09 Thursday morning, Arthur Ashe Stadium (search) was still full and fans at home were mesmerized, knowing they'd been treated to something rare.
Agassi bounded onto the court with the joyful grin of a child, his eyes wide as he soaked in the adoring cheers of the crowd.
At 35, he is ageless, his tennis a timeless classic.
"It's all a bit surreal," Agassi said. "I get out there and I try to work and I come off the court and many times in my career I feel like it's been a dream. That's the way it feels here."
He is the oldest Open semifinalist since Connors, and will now play unseeded American Robby Ginepri (search) on Saturday. Ginepri outlasted Guillermo Coria in another five-set thriller.
Sixth-seeded Elena Dementieva beat Lindsay Davenport.
"What Jimmy did was incredible," Agassi said. "I've heard him talk about it as if it was the most meaningful thing to him. That certainly speaks volumes with a career like that. A match like tonight can add to your life, regardless of the titles on the line."
An eight-time Grand Slam winner, Agassi has played better matches and had bigger comebacks. But on this stage, at this point in his career, he's never been more spectacular.
"I never feel great after a loss, but I guess it's about as good as I can feel. I fought my heart out. I did everything I could," Blake said. "He just played too good for me at the end."
Agassi was no match for Blake in the first two sets, humbled by the younger American's speed and precision. Every shot Blake hit found its mark, and time and again he raced across the court to save a ball that, for anyone else, would have been impossibly out of reach.
He got better with every point he played, while Agassi got worse. He looked every bit a 35-year-old trying to keep up with someone 10 years younger, rushing shots and spraying them long and wide.
When Blake broke Agassi to go up 3-2 in the third, it seemed as if a torch had been passed.
"He was really hitting the ball clean and big and making me feel like I was a step behind on all of my shots," Agassi said. "I overreacted to that and started pressing too much and hitting too big just to try to hang with him a little bit. And I lost my rhythm."
But Agassi is a master at resurrection. He won the French and U.S. Opens in 1999, two years after he'd fallen to No. 141. This year, he feared his career might be over when nerve pain from a herniated disc in his back led to a first-round loss at the French and forced him to skip Wimbledon.
He broke Blake for the first time since early in the second set with one of his patented gorgeous drop shots, then took the next three games. He settled back into his own game, running Blake all over the court from the baseline to wear him down, then pick him apart with sneaky drop shots.
"James is a guy that runs on high octane," Agassi said. "He's a fighter jet. He burns the fuel fast and furious, and he's gotten much better with that over the years. But he plays so big and he's so fast that if an edge does come off, it's a big relief. ... When he comes down into just warp speed, it gives you a little breath of life."
Blake slowed in the fourth set, and the precision he had early faded. But the American didn't endure the personal tragedies he did last summer to simply give up.
Blake broke his neck in a freak accident while practicing at a tournament in Rome in May 2004. Two months later, his father died of cancer. And a week after that, he got a severe case of shingles that left part of his face temporarily paralyzed.
"I've matured a little. I think I learned that a little while ago, but now it's translating to my game," Blake said. "Now I know that I can play pretty darn good tennis."
He cranked up his intensity again in the fifth set, breaking Agassi for a 3-2 lead with a ferocious forehand winner. Agassi got the break back and put the pressure on Blake to force the tiebreaker. He did — with a 118 mph ace.
Agassi finally put an end to the duel after 2 hours, 51 minutes, with a forehand winner that smacked the sideline.
"Your heart drops a little. You feel that in your stomach, once you realize it's over," Blake said. "You've got to just walk up there and congratulate Andre. That's all I could do, is think about how proud I am and move on."
Blake and Agassi exchanged a hug at the net. Blake then went back to his chair, burying his head in a towel while Agassi went back onto the court to celebrate.
"Everyone keeps asking when he's going to retire," Blake said. "He has no reason to retire. He's one of the best in the world, still chasing Grand Slams. If he's still enjoying it and still finding ways to motivate himself, I say let him play forever."