The '06 Open: Agassi's last stand

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - When the 2006 U.S. Open gets underway next week, all eyes will be on Andre Agassi as the American tennis icon performs in his last professional tournament. The Las Vegas native announced earlier this season that he would conclude his 20-year career at the Open, where he is a two-time winner and four-time runner-up.

The last time that the former world No. 1 Agassi played Agassi-like tennis was at last year's U.S. Open, where the ageless wonder advanced all the way to the final and actually took a set off the amazing Roger Federer before succumbing to the reigning Big Apple champ. The A-Train needed to win three straight five-set matches just to reach the prestigious final.

The 36-year-old Agassi has been slowed by, among other things, a bad back over the last couple of years and decided that this season would be his last on the grueling ATP circuit.

The eight-time Grand Slam champion captured his U.S. Open titles in 1994 and 1999 and was the runner-up in Flushing in 1990, 1995, 2002 and last year. That's six U.S. Open finals if you're counting at home (and it's still six even if you're not).

Andre is a career 77-18 in his previous 20 trips to the Open, where he's played every year since 1986. Wow! Only his fellow great Jimmy Connors (98-17) has tallied more U.S. Open match victories than Agassi in the Open Era.

Andre Agassi
Andre Agassi will conclude his Hall-of-Fame career in New York.
The legendary Agassi is a pedestrian 8-7 overall this year and his last outing resulted in a stunning second-round loss against little-known Italian Andrea Stoppini in D.C. His longest winning streak this season is two matches, which he's done in just three of his seven events. Agassi's lost his tournament-opening match twice this year, and has won only two titles over the last three seasons.

I think I hear the fat lady singing.

Can Agassi go out with a bang like his arch-rival Pete Sampras did at the Open at Andre's expense four years ago? Sampras handled Agassi in the Flushing final in 2002 to cap his awesome career with a record 14th Grand Slam title.

As for Agassi's chances at this year's Open, my gut feeling tells me he won't get out of the first week at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. But much stranger things have happened.

By the way, can the new name of the National Tennis Center be any longer? I think the only thing missing is a sponsor name. On opening night (Monday), the facility will officially be renamed to honor the legendary former star player and women's sports pioneer that is Billie Jean King.

Back to the Open.

Obviously, Federer is the favorite on the men's side in New York, while the women feature a few contenders, most notably two-time 2006 Grand Slam winner Amelie Mauresmo and three-time '06 major finalist Justine Henin-Hardenne. Kim Clijsters will not be on hand to defend her lone Grand Slam title after injuring her left wrist in Montreal last week. Clijsters topped Mary Pierce in last year's Open finale.

Federer will be seeking his ninth major title when he arrives in the Apple, where he's the reigning two-time champ. The super Swiss also currently holds the Australian Open and Wimbledon titles. He's the reigning four-time winner at the storied All England Club.

Only five men have won more Grand Slam singles titles than the graceful Federer (Sampras, Roy Emerson, Bjorn Borg, Rod Laver and Bill Tilden), and he's currently tied with five other guys at eight wins (Fred Perry, Agassi, Connors, Ken Rosewall and Ivan Lendl).

The world No. 1 Federer appeared a bit vulnerable last week when he lost to rising Brit Andy Murray in straight sets at the Masters event in Cincinnati. It marked the Swiss' first loss in 63 matches this year against someone other than Rafael Nadal and also halted the Fed's North American hardcourt winning streak at 55, which dated back to 2004, in Cincy.

Roger Federer
Roger Federer is seeking a U.S. Open three-peat.
Last year, Federer became the first man since Don Budge in 1937-38 to win back-to-back Wimbledon and U.S. Open championships in consecutive years. He hasn't lost at the Open since his nemesis David Nalbandian stopped him there in the fourth round in 2003.

Federer, of course, can expect a challenge from the two-time French Open champion Nadal, who is 4-1 this year against the cool Swiss, with one of the wins coming in the Roland Garros finale. The loss came at the hands of Federer in the Wimbledon championship bout.

Although three of Nadal's victories over Federer have come on clay this season, the 20-year-Spaniard also stopped the sublime Swiss in a hardcourt final in Dubai, which is an important note considering the U.S. Open is staged on a hardcourt, one of Federer's dominant surfaces.

Don't look now, but Andy Roddick may be primed for a run in New York. The brash American is fresh off his first title of 2006 after running the table in Cincy last week. The former world No. 1 star has struggled through a good portion of this season, but his massive serve is always a dangerous weapon and he did capture his lone major title at the Open just three years ago.

The only other American to talk about other than Agassi and Roddick is James Blake, who typically doesn't fare very well at the Slams, with the exception of last year's Open, where he lost to Agassi in an epic five-set quarterfinal clash at Ashe Stadium. Blake blew a two-sets-to-love lead in that one, as Agassi ultimately prevailed in a fifth-set tiebreak in a classic.

We also have to keep our eyes on the world No. 4 Nalbandian and this year's breakthrough story Marcos Baghdatis. Nalbandian was the Wimbledon runner-up in 2002 and is the reigning Tennis Masters Cup champ as a result of his huge victory over Federer in a final in Shanghai last year. Baghdatis, meanwhile, stunned the tennis world by landing in the Aussie Open finale back in January, and got our attention again by reaching the semifinals at Wimbledon just last month. The excitable Cypriot lost to Federer in the Aussie final, but did manage to take a set off the supreme Swiss, and gave way to Nadal in the final four at the venerable AEC.

I'd say Baggy's legit.

One other fella to watch out for is third-ranked Croat Ivan Ljubicic. He hasn't typically produced his best results at majors in the past, but he did reach the Aussie Open quarters (Baghdatis) and French Open semis (Nadal) this year, marking the best Grand Slam results of his career.

My honorable mention category features the likes of Tommy Haas and 2001 U.S. Open winner and 2004 runner-up Lleyton Hewitt.

Amelie Mauresmo
Amelie Mauresmo has already won two of the three majors this season.
On the ladies' side, the world No. 1 Mauresmo will seek her third major in four tries this season, while the former top-ranked Henin-Hardenne will be in search of her sixth career Grand Slam, and her second of the year. Mauresmo bested Henin-Hardenne in the Aussie Open and Wimbledon finals, while JH-H got past steady Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova in the French Open finale. Henin- Hardenne captured the U.S. Open in 2003 by erasing Clijsters in the all-Belgian final.

The former world No. 1 Clijsters would have been one of the favorites this year, but that bum wrist will keep her sidelined, probably for the next two months.

Outside of Mauresmo and Henin-Hardenne, the players to really watch are the 2004 U.S. Open champ Kuznetsova and 2004 Wimbledon winner and former No. 1 Maria Sharapova. Kuznetsova has played great tennis all year long, while Sharapova recently titled at a hardcourt US Open Series event in San Diego, where she upset Clijsters in the final.

The American contenders among the women are a trio former world No. 1s -- Lindsay Davenport, Venus Williams and Serena Williams. Davenport has appeared in only two events since March due to a bad back, while Serena has competed in only three events all season due to, I guess, a variety of reasons? Venus, on the other hand, has been downright busy compared to Davenport and her younger sister, as she's competed in a whopping five tourneys this year, but has yet to reach a final. Davenport, Serena and Venus, combined, have no finals appearances among them in 2006. When's the last time that happened?

For the record, Davenport captured the Open back in 1998 and was the runner-up in 2000, while Serena is a two-time winner (1999, 2002) and was the 2001 runner-up to Venus and Venus is a two-time champ (2000-01) and two-time runner-up (1997, 2002).

Two other female contenders could be Martina "Swiss Miss" Hingis and 2004 Open runner-up Elena Dementieva, who recently corralled a hardcourt title in Los Angeles. The former top-ranked Hingis is fresh off her runner-up finish at the Tier I Rogers Cup event in Montreal.

Hingis won the U.S. Open in '97 and was the back-to-back runner-up in 1998 and '99. She hasn't performed in Flushing since 2002, due to an injury-induced retirement that lasted until the end of last year.

The only other women I think I need to mention are Nadia Petrova, Patty Schnyder and Nicole Vaidisova. And there, I mentioned them.

So who's gonna win this thing? Expect a three-peat from Federer; and I like JH-H to nail down her second major of the year, even though there really is no clear-cut choice among the women.

FYI, the instant replay challenge system will make its Grand Slam debut in Flushing.

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