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Agassi left carrying banner for U.S. men

NEW YORK -- While the autopsy continued some 40 hours after the untimely loss of Andy Roddick, a balding 35-year-old with a pigeon-toed gait carried the fading torch for American men's tennis.

Andre Agassi, giving away nearly a foot to Croatian Ivo Karlovic, survived quite nicely on Thursday, winning in straight, very nearly matched sets, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4). He was one of the lucky ones.

Vince Spadea, the 31-year-old veteran, and Brian Baker, a former top junior player, both lost their second-round matches.

The fortnight that is the U.S. Open began with 18 American men (seven were granted wild cards) in the field of 128, four more than the nation of Spain and twice as many as any other country; Argentina, France and Germany all had nine players.

After only four days, the U.S. total is down to four. Agassi, the No. 7 seed, is the highest ranked American player left. He is joined by Taylor Dent, at No. 25 the only other seeded player, Robby Ginepri and James Blake, who beat Igor Andreev Thursday night, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4. That's it.

Spain, meanwhile, has five players still alive in the top half of the draw alone, while France has four. Belgium, for goodness sake, still has two guys alive. Maybe the United States Tennis Association could rename their major The International Open.

This is Agassi's 20th U.S. Open -- only Jimmy Connors (22) played more -- which not only underscores his perseverance but also the vacuum in which he continues to operate.

It's been seven years since only one American man reached the quarterfinals. It could happen again; Agassi is the only player with a decent shot -- and he would face dangerous No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal at that juncture.

It was Roddick, of course, who was supposed to challenge Roger Federer, the world's No. 1-ranked player. On the evening of Roddick's 23rd birthday, however, Gilles Muller of Luxembourg flogged A-Rod, the No. 4 seed, in three consecutive tiebreaks.

Was it his nonexistent backhand? The over-the-top American Express advertising campaign? His spotty performance in big points? The dismissal of former coach Brad Gilbert? Roddick won the 2003 U.S. Open, but he won't win another Grand Slam until he becomes a more complete player.

"It's a bummer for the tournament," Dent said after his first-round match. "But that's men's tennis. I mean, unfortunately, it's just so deep. It's a shame."

Dent, one of the few pure serve-and-volley players in the game, talked about the need for developing a rival for Roddick.

"I think it's huge, it's everything," he said. "You can't tell me that if me, Andy, Robby, James, Mardy Fish -- a whole bunch of American guys -- were in the top 10 that tennis wouldn't be huge in America. We are working so hard to get there. We want it for many, many reasons, that being one of them. We want tennis to be huge in the States.

"I want to have a rivalry with Andy, I want that. That would be fun. Hopefully, sooner than later, it will happen," he said.

Based on the recent returns, Ginepri -- one of Roddick's best friends -- probably has the best chance to elevate his game. On Thursday he exacted revenge on Muller, wrecking him 6-1, 6-1, 6-4 to advance to a third-round match.

This is something of a surprise, since earlier this year's Ginepri's ranking dipped to No. 103 -- quite a comedown for someone who was ranked as high as No. 25 in February. His loss in the first round at Wimbledon was his fourth straight in a Grand Slam singles draw and, after falling to Slovakia's Michal Mertinak at Newport, his record was a pedestrian 10-14.

Ginepri admits he got lazy and took his achievements for granted. It was coach Francisco Montana, who signed with Ginepri last December, who snapped him out of it over dinner before Indianapolis. He is 16-3 since.

Ginepri won all six of his matches at Indianapolis, including a seismic victory over Roddick in the quarterfinals and a win over Dent, who retired, in the final. Ginepri won two matches in both Los Angeles and Washington and then rolled into the semifinal at Cincinnati -- beating Grand Slam champions Carlos Moya and Marat Safin in the process -- before Federer dispatched him in a lively three-set match.

Montana has been stressing "shot tolerance" to the legendarily impatient Ginepri and it seems to be working. On Thursday, he had all of eight unforced errors against Muller, an unusually low number in a Grand Slam event on a hardcourt.

Blake, too, has been playing well. After suffering a fracture in his neck last year, he won a week ago at New Haven and his ranking has returned to the top 50. Dent, who may be better known for playing the role of the guy who comically loses to Agassi's young son in a commercial for a financial services company, has a winnable second-round match against Nicolas Almagro.

There is help on the way: Scoville Jenkins, only 18 and the No. 352 player in the world, played a close, respectable second-round match with Nadal. Donald Young, the reigning under-18 champion, is only 16 years old.

But for now, it falls to Agassi. He has been to the quarterfinals and beyond 12 times here in 19 previous appearances. Damned if he might not do it again.

Thursday provided another first in his celebrated career; in his 266th Grand Slam match, Agassi won three breakers for the first time.

Agassi, who has reiterated numerous times that he isn't planning on retiring, suffers from a sciatic nerve injury in his back. While cortisone shots have keep it under control, his day-to-day existence is a tenuous one -- not unlike the state of American men's tennis.

"It was a good sign to play a guy where I had to lunge a lot and jump around," Agassi said. "I felt pretty good.

"I'll keep my fingers crossed," he said.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.