| Marat Safin applauds a Albert Costa passing-shot in Shanghai Wednesday. Safin lost 6-3, 4-6, 3-6, his second loss in the Masters Cup. (AFP)
Shanghai: Andre Agassi’s hopes of toppling Lleyton Hewitt as world No. 1 suffered a bitter blow when he was beaten 5-7, 1-6 by Jiri Novak at the ATP Masters Cup on Wednesday. Agassi can still overtake the Australian, who lost to Carlos Moya on Wednesday, in this final week of the season but the manner of his defeat to the Czech will have done nothing to help his confidence.
After leading 5-2 in the first set the 32-year-old American capitulated, losing 11 of the last 12 games. “I tried my best and I was beaten. I don’t know about the (ranking) numbers or anything but it is not an easy turnaround for me to play a disappointing match, to lose a match, and then come back and play the next day,” said Agassi.
“I have always felt that once I lose I deserve to be out of the tournament, so it is a difficult situation for me but I will just have to see it as another opportunity... as another chance.”
To become the oldest year-end No. 1, Agassi must win the $3.7 million title and hope Hewitt does not reach the final.
Hewitt, who overtook Gustavo Kuerten in the final week of last year’s season to become the youngest year-end world No. 1 aged 20, also lost in dismal fashion 4-6, 5-7 to Spain’s Moya, who swept into the semi-finals with two wins from two in the Red Group.
Moya, a runner-up at this event in 1998, will play compatriot and French Open champion Albert Costa in his final group match.
Powerful Russian Marat Safin — Moya’s victim on Tuesday — is Hewitt’s final opponent in the group, while Agassi faces Roger Federer and Juan Carlos Ferrero in the Gold Group. Agassi will have to dig deep in his remaining group matches after being mugged by an unlikely source on Wednesday.
Uniquely this year, Novak has qualified for the season-ending finale without having won a title all year but at the New Shanghai International Expo Centre he thrilled the Chinese crowd with some powerful hitting.
Agassi had no answers to the Czech’s counter-punching — usually the American’s forte. “He hits the ball hard and he redirects it well,” Agassi said blankly. “Ultimately, you are going to play better or worse depending on what day it is and you have to adjust accordingly. I couldn’t do that and wasn’t deserving of a victory today.”
Nor was Hewitt who failed to find the intensity that carried him past Albert Costa on the opening day. Moya, himself a former world No. 1, is among the few who can be said to “have Hewitt’s number.”
In early Red Group action Marat Safin’s Masters Cup chances were knocked when the mighty Russian threw away a one-set lead to crumble 6-3, 4-6, 3-6 to Spain’s Albert Costa. Safin is still not technically eliminated from the season-ender but his chances of qualifying for the semi-finals look bleak.
Costa, beaten by Hewitt on Tuesday, proved too consistent for Safin who blew hot and cold at the New Shanghai International Expo Centre as the Spaniard recorded his first indoor victory of the season.
Peppering the lines with heavy groundstrokes, the French Open champion drew his opponent into long, protracted rallies as he hauled himself into the match after Safin had blitzed the opener.
Not even a brief disruption in the third set when lights surrounding the court went out could dent his concentration and determination. “Sometimes matches can be decided in just a couple of points and I fought and fought,” Costa said. “Fighting is easy for me. Maybe I am fresher than the other guys here.