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Will it be enough to overcome Agassi?

Gambill set to seize moment

By Charles Bricker Staff Writer
Posted September 2 2002

NEW YORK · Of all the suspects who have survived the first week of the U.S. Open, no one has played with as much shocking efficiency as Jan-Michael Gambill, who seems finally to have assembled the net game that could take him to the most rarefied air on the men's tour.

No more futile waving of his racket at passing shots. No more off-balance lunges inside the service line. Or at least very few. In three wins here, two against top players, Gambill has raised his point-conversion efficiency at net to a much higher level (75 percent) and he's going to need every bit of that, and more, to defeat Andre Agassi in the fourth round today.

Rain washed out Sunday's program, slipping everyone one day. It gave Gambill, whose ranking has fallen to No. 57, another 24 hours to contemplate how to break a five-match, 11-set losing streak against Agassi. This is going to be one of the most important matches in his stuttering career, which last year took him to No. 14 before a bad shoulder and his usual clay-court meltdown sent him reeling.

If he does retreat, no one is going to remember that he reached the fourth round at the U.S. Open for the first time in his six-year pro career.

"I need to bring the presence I've had in these last three matches," said Gambill after converting 20 of 24 points at the net in a one-sided 6-0, 6-2, 6-0 win over No. 21 Gaston Gaudio in the third round. "I'm going out there with a clear head, playing one point at a time. I'm not going to think about it being Andre Agassi. If he outfoxes me again, more power to him. But I'm going out with a clear mind, to have a good time and not worry who is on the other side."

Gambill has always had a great serve and his two-handed ground strokes off both sides, flat and penetrating, have been a big part of his game. But until he crushed Carlos Moya 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 in the second round, he had never shown a consistency for finishing points at the net against top opponents.

For Gambill, this Grand Slam didn't start with back-to-back aces in the first game of his opening match against Julian Knowle of Austria. It began the day before the tournament in front of a television with his father/coach, Chuck Gambill, waving the clicker and demanding, "See that ... see that."

He was running and rerunning tape of Agassi's 6-2, 6-4 win over his son in the final at Los Angeles in late July.

"That tape got rewound quite a few times," said Gambill. Then, with his father and his longtime personal friend and sometime coaching consultant, Nick Saviano of the USTA, Gambill sat down to the most serious conversation of his life about volleying. They looked at his footwork inside the service line. They examined why opponents were passing him easily. And they refined the timing of his split-step, that critical motion on the rush to the net in which a player comes down on balance with feet spread.

Saviano and Chuck Gambill showed Jan-Mike how he was running through his split-step, throwing off his timing so badly that he was too often not in position to make a play on a passing shot.

"Jan-Michael is a very talented guy. You mention something and he picks it up almost immediately," said Saviano, who lives in Plantation. "Sometimes, athletes consciously guess or think where the ball is going. This is a fundamental mistake that players make at every level. The top players, when they're playing well, don't think about where the ball is going. They just react. What the correct split-step does is heighten your sense of awareness by getting you on balance and letting your brain just pick up everything."

That's what Gambill finally has done. His win over Knowle hardly raised a yawn. But Moya had won 21 of his past 23 matches before Gambill destroyed him. And Gaudio's passing shots are among the best in tennis.

Gambill's ground strokes have been devastating the first three matches. But Agassi will match him stroke for stroke and beat him in the long baseline rallies. That's why it's critical for Gambill to get into the net and execute when he gets there.

"I don't think he's going to be afraid to come in on Andre," said Saviano. "But that's based on his taking control of the point from the baseline. He's got to get Andre reaching for the ball, get him off balance and take the ball early. If he can't do that, he's going to have a very difficult time."
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