From the start of the year, it was evident that Andre Agassi would be entering uncharted territory in 2004, with a wave of young challengers making headway on the ATP Tour.
Having won three of the past four Australian Opens, Agassi’s winning streak in Melbourne was snapped by Marat Safin in the semifinals. Following that, he dropped semifinal matches to Mardy Fish and world No. 1 Roger Federer in San Jose and Indian Wells, respectively.
Struggles with a hip injury made the clay- and grass-court stretches quite forgettable, and even led to him missing Wimbledon. His return to hard courts for the summer got off to a slow start as he posted a 3-2 record over two tournaments, and when the Cincinnati Masters 1000 event rolled around, Agassi was out of the Top 10 of the world rankings.
That tournament was a landmine for seeded players, with two of the Top 10 forced to withdraw before the start and five falling by the third round, including the top-seeded Federer, who dropped his opener to Dominik Hrbaty.
Seeded No. 11, Agassi faced his young compatriot Fish in the first round. Fish picked up from where he left off in San Jose, taking the first set. The second went to a tiebreak, which Agassi won to level the match and he then raced through the decider to advance.
Next up was Thomas Johannson, who won the Australian Open in Agassi’s absence in 2002. The American fought through a second consecutive three-setter, then beat Juan Ignacio Chela and Carlos Moya in straights to advance to the semis against another countryman, defending champion Andy Roddick.
After dropping his first four matches against one of his mentors, Roddick finally broke through with a three-set win at the year-end championships in 2003. In this match, Agassi took the opener, then lost the second in a tiebreak. The showdown between arguably the game’s best server and returner came down to a third-set tiebreak, which Agassi won as he survived 30 aces dished up by Roddick over the course of the match.
The final—Agassi’s first of the year—would see him face off against Lleyton Hewitt, the number-10 seed. Hewitt announced himself on the world stage back in 1998 with his surprise win over Agassi in the Adelaide final, when he was only 17. Over the years, the two—whose games were near mirror images—played each other rather evenly.
In Cincinnati, it was Agassi who struck first to take the opener 6-3. Renowned for never buckling, Hewitt bounced back in the second, winning it 6-2 to level the match.
The last time these two faced off in a final was in 2002 in San Jose, a match won by Hewitt in a third-set tiebreak. There was no chance of this going to such distances as Agassi overwhelmed Hewitt in the decider 6-2 to win his third title in Cincinnati and then-record 17th Masters title. It would be the last of his career at that level.
Agassi would go on to finish the year strong with quarterfinal or better finishes in his last four tournaments. Getting through a mix of young contenders, future and former No. 1s and Grand Slam champions in Cincinnati was surely the highlight—and proved the then-33-year wasn’t ready for the game to pass him by yet.
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