NEW YORK, Reuters
Unseeded Frenchman Arnaud Clement robbed the U.S. Open of its top seed and defending champion, sending fan favorite Andre Agassi home early in a stunning turn of events at Flushing Meadows on Thursday.
The 37th-ranked Clement seemed to have all the right angles in an inspired performance and Agassi could never seem to find his way on his favorite court as the 22-year-old Frenchman scored the biggest win of his life, a 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 second-round shocker.
“To win this match for me it’s unbelievable,” enthused Clement. “It’s an unbelievable court, maybe 15,000 persons and everybody’s for him… It’s my best victory in my career.”
Playing his first match since it was revealed that both his younger sister Tammee and his mother were battling breast cancer, Agassi insisted that mental distractions had nothing to do with his earliest ouster from the U.S. Open since a 1993 first-round loss.
“I just got outplayed. You’ve got to give people credit where credit is due,” the two-time U.S. Open titlist and reigning Australian Open champion said of Clement, who had reached three hardcourt semifinals this summer.
“I thought he moved exceptionally well,” added Agassi, who had beaten Clement in their two previous meetings en route to the 1999 French and U.S. Open titles.
“I felt like every time I stepped it up, I started missing, then I pulled back and he kept up the offensive.
“It was just a brutal day,” lamented the 30-year-old six-time Grand Slam champion. Earliest exit for top two seeds
With second-seeded French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten having lost in the first round, it marked the first time in the open era (since 1968) that the top two seeds have been bounced out of the U.S. Open prior to the third round.
This also marked the second successive year that the defending champion was knocked out early. Patrick Rafter, the 1997 and 1998 winner and another first-round upset victim this week, was forced to retire with a serious shoulder injury during the first round last year.
The women’s defending champion fared better.
Fifth-seeded Serena Williams, who last year became the first black woman to win a Grand Slam title since Althea Gibson at the 1958 Open, powered past Russian Nadejda Petrova 6-3, 6-2.
The day started out well for Agassi, who broke Clement in the first game. It was all downhill from there for the top seed as Clement made the most of his chances and came up with one sizzling winner after another — 36 compared to 19 for Agassi.
Clement had six break chances in the one hour and 42 minute match and converted five of them, while the greatest returner in the game managed to force a mere three break opportunities and made good only on the one in the opening game.
The young Frenchman even managed to keep from getting rattled in the final game when twice he thought he had fired an ace on match point, thrusting his arms skyward in triumph, only to have the call go against him — the first a let and the second called out.
On his fifth match point, Clement delivered yet another big serve and Agassi put a forehand return into the net.
“If I break in that game you never know what happens from there,” Agassi speculated. “I’m sure he’d have a big letdown because he’d feel he was so close.
“I had a couple more sets in me, if I could have gotten there,” he said a bit wistfully. Sampras hot favorite
Suddenly Pete Sampras, already through to the third round, has become the prohibitive favorite to win his fifth U.S. Open.
But should the Grand Slam king stumble, there is no shortage of talented, hungry contenders waiting in the wings to make a major breakthrough, including seventh-seeded Thomas Enqvist of Sweden, ninth-seeded Australian teenager Lleyton Hewitt and 11th seed Tim Henman of Britain, all straight sets winners.
Former Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek also breezed into the third round to set up a tantalizing clash with Henman.
Fifth seed Yevgeny Kafelnikov also advanced but needed four sets and two hours and 44 minutes to beat Alexander Popp of Germany after going five sets in the first round. He will have to figure out a way to conserve his energy if he is to add to his two career Grand Slam titles.
Three other seeds fell by the wayside in minor upsets.
Argentine Franco Squillari, the 13th seed, was ousted by South Korean qualifier Lee Hyung-taik, and 48th-ranked Jerome Golmard emulated Clement by dismissing 16th seed Nicolas Lapentti of Ecuador 7-6 (7-3), 6-0, 2-6, 4-6, 7-6 (7-5) in an epic five-setter that brought the curtain down on a busy day.
Women’s 14th seed Dominique Van Roost of Belgium retired from her second-round match after splitting sets with American Lilia Osteroh, suffering from heat illness and dehydration.
Agassi’s fellow defending Olympic champion Lindsay Davenport, the second seed and 1998 Open winner, was extended to three sets by 17-year-old Belgian Kim Clijsters before advancing 4-6, 6-2, 6-2, while fourth-seeded French Open champion Mary Pierce prevailed 7-5, 2-6, 6-1 win over Magdalena Maleeva.
Fans mourning the loss of Agassi could take some solace in the fact that the immensely popular Anna Kournikova was still around. The Russian 12th seed won an often ugly match with Czech Sandra Kleinova 6-4, 6-1.
Somehow the crowd didn’t seem to mind all the errors and service breaks.