NEW YORK (AP) – Three points from the end of a sunbaked five-setter, the man draped over the net like a wet noodle was 10 years younger than Andre Agassi.

Maybe to rub it in, maybe because Agassi felt rejuvenated, he hopped on his toes as Xavier Malisse, gasping and all but gone, peeled himself off the net and returned for the final moments of punishment.

Agassi shrugged off Malisse’s brave last stand – a 26th ace – then crushed a forehand into the corner to set up double match point. At 35, Agassi tries not to waste too many opportunities to stomp on an opponent he has down, though he missed a couple when he was two points from winning in straight sets.

This time he unleashed a backhand that the lunging Belgian whacked long, giving Agassi a 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 4-6, 6-2 victory Monday and making him the oldest U.S. Open men’s quarterfinalist since Jimmy Connors’ legendary run at 39 to the semis in 1991.

Age and balky back aside, Agassi suddenly is looking like a serious contender to go at least as far as Connors did that year. At No. 7, he’s the highest seeded player in the bottom half of the draw. He next faces unseeded fellow American James Blake, who came back from injury and illness to knock off No. 2 Rafael Nadal in the third round and beat No. 19 Tommy Robredo in the fourth, 4-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-3.

A year ago Blake was recovering from partial paralysis of his face, caused by shingles, and watched the Open on television, uncertain if he’d ever play again. Asked what he would have thought then if told he’d be playing Agassi in the quarters this year, Blake laughed.

“I don’t think I would have been able to speak,” he said. “I think my year would have gotten worse, because I would have had a heart attack.”

Blake, the first black American man to reach the quarters at the Open in 23 years, made a startling rebound from fractured vertebrae in his neck 16 months ago and the shingles that followed just after his father died of cancer. He’s been the feel-good story of the tournament, along with the seemingly ageless Agassi.

“He’s always been a real dangerous player,” Agassi said of the 25-year-old Blake, who beat him en route to his first tour title in Washington three years ago but has lost three of their four meetings, the last in 2003. Blake won his second title in New Haven two weeks ago.

“You never know when somebody comes of age or game,” Agassi said. “Some people, it happens a lot earlier than others. … There’s no question he’s doing something better than he used to do.”

Agassi still has the legs, the will and the game to beat anyone. He had enough left to drill three straight aces – two at 120-plus mph – and a service winner in his final serves against Malisse. “Even a blind dog can find a bone every now and then,” Agassi joked. He’s better known for his returning prowess than his serves, but he’s rarely been broken this tournament.

Yet Agassi knows that the herniated disc in his back can flare up at any moment and shoot sciatic nerve pain down his leg, as it did when he lost in the first round of the French Open. He took a cortisone shot in the spine, missed Wimbledon, and came back to win a tournament in Los Angeles and reach the final of another in Montreal. That was enough to give him hope that he might just have enough left to challenge for the Open title he won in 1994 and 1999.

Winning a 3-hour, five-setter only raised Agassi’s hopes.

“It’s a great sign,” he said. “I’ve trained hard. This is why you work so hard, so that physically you can do it. Something like a nerve, you never know when it’s going to be an issue. I’ll keep my fingers crossed from this day forward. I play by different rules now. My body plays by different rules. I need to listen to that.”

Age didn’t hamper Lindsay Davenport. The 1998 champion and the second oldest woman in the tournament, at 29, reached the quarterfinals with a 6-0, 6-3 romp over France’s Nathalie Dechy. Davenport next plays sixth-seeded Elena Dementieva, last year’s runner-up, who beat No. 11 Patty Schnyder in straight sets. No. 3 Amelie Mauresmo beat No. 19 Elena Likhovtseva, also in straight sets.

Eighth-seeded Guillermo Coria of Argentina outlasted Nicolas Massu of Chile 6-4, 2-6, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-2, in a match that lasted 4 hours, 32 minutes and featured plenty of trash-talking. During one changeover, an official even stood between the two as they yapped at each other from their chairs.

Agassi’s trainer and close friend, Gil Reyes, said they worked hard on Agassi’s leg strength this summer. The trick now is to keep Agassi healthy enough to play best-of-five matches every other day. Reyes is particularly concerned about Agassi’s recuperative time at his age.

“We will do whatever we need to do to have him ready,” Reyes said. “I asked him just a little while ago, At 35, what are we going to do?’ And he said I don’t know, I’ve never been 35 before.’ He said, Let’s learn together. We’ll have to see how he pulls up in the morning, how he feels. Whoever he plays he’s going to be ready.”

Agassi looked as if he would roll over Malisse, who seemed lethargic in the first two sets. But two points from losing, when Agassi led the third-set tiebreak 5-3, Malisse cranked up his game and won four straight points to extend the match.

“Two points from the match … there’s still a person standing in the way there,” Agassi said. “It’s not like in basketball, where you run out the clock and somebody throws up a half-court shot that happens to go in and rips your heart out. This is a guy that’s forcing me to close him out, and I didn’t do it because of his standard.” He deserved that set and outplayed me in the fourth.”

Agassi got discouraged and played careless in the fourth, but said he had every intention of making Malisse play at the same level for another set.

“When the fifth starts, the best thing you can do is put everything behind you and focus on the next point,” Agassi said. “I’m pretty experienced at doing that. So, mentally, I was ready for that challenge. I got up early in the fifth, which always makes it easier.”

AP-ES-09-05-05 1954EDT

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