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Ilie entertains even in defeat

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Posted: Sunday January 21, 2001 8:33 AM

By Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated

MELBOURNE, Australia -- The shirt stayed on this time. The matador bows were half-hearted and the fans with their faces painted green and yellow went away disappointed. Andrew Ilie was more Bill Bixby than Lou Ferrigno here Sunday. The 40th-ranked Aussie, whose striptease act and obscene shotmaking ability have made him every bit as much a fan favorite here as Lleyton Hewitt and Pat Rafter, went down in four sets to a poised, business-like Andre Agassi. But if Ilie can continue to generate a fraction of the excitement he did here, men's tennis has an unlikely star on its hands.

Ilie is the rare player one has to see to believe. Listed generously at 5-foot-11 and 172 pounds, he looks like a club pro whose bar tab is included as part of his compensation. He hits the bulk of his shots off his back foot, knows no other target than the lines, and grunts like a sick dog when he flails away. And yet contrary to all outward appearances, he is tennis' answer to the human highlight reel. Since Ilie, 24, broke onto the circuit a few years ago, other players on tour have been crowding around locker-room televisions and even going into the stands to watch his matches. Now the world knows why. "When he's on," says Rafter, "he's the most exciting player you'll see."

For a set and a half Sunday, Ilie was decidedly on. Time and again Agassi would have his man on the run, only to have Ilie unleash a no-way-in-the-world screamer that kissed the line. At one point Ilie hit such a ridiculous backhand winner -- the kind of shots few player would have the stones even to attempt -- that Steffi Graf could only shake her head and smile incredulously. "You think you have him on the defense and it's like he has you right where he wants you," mused Agassi. "That's not easy to make a running, flying backhand up the line on your back foot, open stance, 25 feet down the baseline. That's too good."

Alas, like any athlete who enters "the zone," the prevailing law of averages -- and physics -- dictate that the good times can't last forever. Up a set and a break against Agassi, Ilie came back down to earth. As his thick legs tired, he began spraying balls. The improbable, exhilarating tennis eventually gave way to brutal misses. An hour after looking as though he would join Marat Safin on the sidelines, Agassi prevailed by a score that belied the match's entertainment value, 6-7, 6-3, 6-0, 6-3. Even Agassi came away a fan. "Hey, it's great for the game," said Agassi. "I have to say, it's much more enjoyable watching him than playing against him."

Though he was born in Romania, Ilie is quintessential Aussie insofar as he doesn't take himself seriously. His shirt-ripping routine, which has earned him as much notoriety as his tennis, is done with irony. Even in a fourth-round loss, his spirits were high after the match. Asked afterward whether he might realize better results if he played a tad more conservatively, Ilie smiled. "I actually played twice as steady as I would have other years. It shows I'm maturing." Not too much, we hope.

Short volleys

After getting dumped by Todd Martin in four sets, at least Pete Sampras showed a sense of humor. Asked whether he had designs of becoming a father before his career ended, he said no, "but I don't mind surprises." ... To the dismay of the locals, Hewitt went down in a five-setter to Carlos Moya late Saturday night. Hewitt may not be around in the second week, but his antics won't be forgotten anytime soon. Especially in the men's locker room. Asked yesterday about Hewitt's histrionics, Alex O'Brien suggested: "They should allow forearm shivers in tennis." ... Jennifer Capriati was down 1-5 to Spain's Marta Marrero Sunday. She won the match 7-5, 6-1. .... Likewise, Justine Henin was up a set and a break against Monica Seles before losing 12 straight points. Then, up a break in the third set, she again dropped a dozen consecutive points and fell 6-4, 4-6, 4-6. ... A new ITF study tells us that female tennis players who reach the top 10 on the junior circuit have a 50-50 chance of breaking into the top 100 in the professional ranks, while males in the juniors top 10 have a 60-percent chance. ... Random trivia: Which player in the men's draw has played in the most Grand Slams? Answer: Jason Stoltenberg.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim will file daily reports through the end of the Australian Open. Click here to send a question to his Mailbag.

Related information
Safin, Sampras ousted; Agassi advances
Saturday's On the Court: Graf's anonymous new life
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