Agassi toys with Muster, shows old form

The Cincinnati Enquirer

MASON, Ohio - If Andre Agassi was not at the top of his game, he was only a few steps from the summit. If Thomas Muster was not back on his heels, he was giving chase in the corners.

Saturday's afternoon semifinal at the Great American Insurance ATP Championship was tennis as torture. Agassi attacked systematically, relentlessly, ruthlessly; Muster scrambled as if trying to put out six fires simultaneously.

The score was 6-4, 6-1. The sensation was similar to watching one of those old Westerns, when some tough guy with a six-shooter decides to make an unarmed man dance.

''He just didn't give me the time to hit,'' Muster said. ''And he just never played the ball in one corner. He just played it pang-pang-pang, and I was on the run most of the day . . . Andre just didn't let me play my game.''

Though his hardcourt prowess does not approach his feats of clay, Thomas Muster is still the world's second-ranked tennis player. He commands respect and deserves dignity. And Andre Agassi absolutely toyed with him Saturday.

Cold-blooded and on fire

Muster had not lost a service game in his three previous ATP matches, and Agassi broke him five times in nine tries.

Agassi pinned Muster deep behind the baseline with ferocious forehandsand then demoralized him with delicate, deadly drop shots. He was alternately surgical and sadistic, like Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man.

''I was working him left and right and maybe sometimes five-six-seven shots before you got the one ball you were waiting for,'' Agassi said. ''When you have to wait that long to get your shot, you've got to make sure you are moving well. You've got to make sure you are executing all your shots well. You've got to make sure you have got variety. All those things need to be clicking or else it is a long day.''

Agassi was able to knock off early Saturday afternoon. He beat Muster in 63 minutes, winning 61 of the 100 points played. On the one-week anniversary of his Olympic gold medal, Agassi proved a lead-pipe cinch.

''If he plays bad, he plays really bad,'' Muster said. ''If he doesn't get his game together, the balls are all over. But once he is playing like this, it is really hard to do something. . . . He plays cross-court shots exactly like the ones down the line, just controlling the court really well.''

This is how Agassi played last summer, when he won the ATP title during a 26-match winning streak and reached the final of all 10 hardcourt tournaments he attempted. He was ranked No. 1 for 30 weeks - ultimately finishing second behind Pete Sampras - but has since slipped to No. 7.

Based on his recent run - which now numbers 10 straight victories - it would appear Agassi has finished falling and commenced climbing.

''It is nice for me to be out there playing this way again,'' Agassi said. ''It is nice to push the standard of tennis when you are out there. It is nice to feel yourself getting better, and it is nice to look forward to big tournaments.''

Brooke might have a shot

When Muster realized what Agassi he was up against Saturday, he knew he could not win simply by playing percentages. Absent an intimidating serve, Muster was compelled to try riskier shots in an effort to counter Agassi's advantages. Muster acknowledged that many of his unforced errors were actually forced. Agassi had made him desperate.

''You have to kill him with power,'' Muster said. ''Either with the serve or you have to play faster than him, which is almost impossible. Or you just destroy his rhythm, or you get him to a stage where he gets tired, but he doesn't, really.''

Agassi was asked if there were any other methods that might beat him.

''You could have good legs and wear a skirt on the other side,'' he said. ''That would have a shot.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Aug. 11, 1996.