Agassi endures all the pain without gain

TENNIS
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TENNIS

JOHN ROBERTS

reports from Paris

A depressed Andre Agassi is worried that he might not be fit to make a realistic challenge at Wimbledon in less than three weeks after a hip injury ended his hopes of completing a collection of the four Grand Slam titles at the French Open yesterday.

"I'm not under the impression that it could hinder me from playing the tournament, but certainly it's going to change my preparation for it," the world No 1 said after losing in the quarter-finals to the Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov, 6-4, 6-3, 7-5.

Asked how long the healing process was likely to take, Agassi said: "I just don't know for sure." He explained that he felt a strain in the right hip flexor muscle after sliding for a ball early in the match, followed by "excruciating pain" towards the end of the opening set. He took an injury time-out off the court at 1-2 in the second set, and was given aspirin and anti-inflammatory tablets.

Agassi added that he would have retired in a lesser event rather than risk aggravating the injury. Instead he endeavoured to change his normal strategy in an attempt to shorten the points, a plan which was unlikely to succeed when the ninth-seeded Kafelnikov was displaying such impressive form.

The 21-year-old from the Black Sea resort of Sochi, now through to his first Grand Slam semi-final, came to prominence last year, when he almost defeated Pete Sampras, the Wimbledon champion and the then world No 1, in the second round of the Australian Open.

Yesterday he ended Agassi's sequence of 18 consecutive wins in Grand Slam matches, which commenced at last year's United States Open and also ensured triumph on his first appearance at the Australian Open in January.

Agassi, Sampras, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg all arrived in Paris with the ambition of becoming only the fifth player in history to have their name on each of the major trophies. In turn, they have left Stade Roland Garros in disappointment, starting with Sampras, the No 2 seed, who lost in the first round.

Agassi had lost only five of his 40 matches this year before running into Kafelnikov, who had lost his previous six clay-court contests before the French Open and went into the match thinking he had "no chance".

His perception changed after he became the first player to hold serve after a run of four consecutive breaks in the opening set, and before he had any notion of Agassi's problems.

"I don't know what kind of injury he had and what kind of treament he was getting in the locker room," the Russian said. "I was going for every shot. I had nothing to lose, and I went to the court without any pressure. Then something happened to me. I don't know what. I was running so fast around the court. I never had that feeling before."

Kafelnikov must trust that the feeling persists, because he is sure to be required to do a lot more sprinting when he plays Thomas Muster in the semi-finals on Friday. The Austrian extended his unbeaten sequence of matches on clay courts to 33, although not before being severely tested by Alberto Costa, a 19-year-old Spaniard who led by two sets to one before Muster overhauled him, 6-2, 3-6, 6-7, 7-5, 6-2.

Word that Monica Seles is preparing to make a comeback comes at an appropriate moment. The women's quarter-finals here not only went according to seeding but were so disappointingly one-sided that the four matches required only four hours and 31 minutes to complete.

Steffi Graf, the No 2 seed, advanced to a semi-final against Conchita Martinez, the Wimbledon champion, with a 6-1, 6-0 demolition of Gabriela Sabatini. The Argentinian had never quite taken such a beating in their 38 previous matches.

Sabatini said she was feeling tired and weak - "not 100 per cent" - which is no condition to be in on a day when Graf gets her act together. "My serve was perfect," the German said.

Martinez's 6-0, 6-4 win against Virginia Ruano-Pascual, a Spanish compatriot, ranked No 88, was predictable given the impressive form she has shown in recent weeks.

Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, the world No 1 and defending champion, accounted for the young American Chanda Rubin, 6-3, 6-1, and will play Japan's Kimiko Date, a 7-5, 6-1 winner against Iva Majoli, of Croatia.

Results, Sporting Digest, page 39

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