Agassi geared up to paint the town white

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reports from New York

A giant white bandana is perched on a corner ledge of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, an example of how Andre Agassi's clothing sponsor endeavours to get a head start. A short distance away, the world No 1 was spreading the gospel of tennis to hundreds of children in Central Park.

Agassi's arrival at the Wollman Rink as the star attraction of the ATP Tour's Smash fair was the highlight of the weekend's build-up to the United States Open, which starts today.

The defending men's singles champion came in his own distinctive style and with the usual group of handlers, pulling up at the roller-skating rink in a Humvee, a cross between a jeep and a tank. The vehicle, ideal for the desert terrain of Agassi's native Nevada, is named Juanita and (again not to miss a trick) the shooshmobile carries the registration plate Nike 1.

White bandanas proliferated, and, after being chosen to hit with the champion, a group of children contributed to the PR exercise by presenting him with one about half the size of the Trump Tower version. "You'd have to be 30-foot tall to have a head big enough to wear that," observed Brad Gilbert, Agassi's coach.

Brand aid, perhaps, but the Agassi show in Central Park was also helping to sell the game, and the mood in the sport has become distinctly upbeat after two years of adverse publicity concerning its waning public appeal.

Agassi went a long way to restoring interest here a year ago, when he finally shed worries concerning his fitness and commitment by becoming the tournament's first unseeded champion since the Australian Fred Stolle in 1966.

Posters on the subway trains rejoice in the rivalry between Agassi and his compatriot Pete Sampras, accompanying their photographs with wry one- liners. Agassi: "I bring out a lot of my opponent's strengths. Like their ability to handle defeat." Sampras: "The great thing about tournaments in New York is there's lots of fun things for players to do after I beat them."

The huge bonus is the return of Monica Seles, who showed herself well capable of dominating the women's game again by winning the Canadian Open, her first tournament for 28 months, without dropping a set.

Another sign of optimism is the skeleton of a new stadium court under construction at Flushing Meadow.

Significantly, the sport's manufacturing industry has belatedly joined the administrators and players in seeking ways to curb the power generated by racket technology as well as producing balls suitable for the various court surfaces. One idea is to restrict the professionals to the current midsize weapons while leaving recreational players to choose from the wide range of howitzers.

Meantime, the power game continues. Seles returns wielding a new Yonex Super RQ-500, which, the makers boast, "provides more spin and control than any other widebody." As if her opponents were not in enough trouble already.

The diminutive Michael Chang has prospered by using a longer handle. The runner-up to Austria's Thomas Muster at the French Open in June, Chang prefers the American concrete courts to Europe's clay and could play a decisive role in Sampras's half of the draw. It has been noted that for the past four years, the US Open champion has had to clear Chang from his path (Stefan Edberg in 1991 and '92, Pete Sampras in 1993 and Agassi last year).

Agassi has strengthened his position at the top of the rankings by playing impressively on the ATP Tour since losing to Boris Becker in the Wimbledon semi-finals. Sampras, who defeated Becker in the Wimbledon final, is free of the injuries which contributed to his defeat by the Peruvian Jaime Yzaga in the fourth round here last year.

Thomas Enqvist is capable of making an impact in Sampras's quarter. The Swedish ninth seed is projected to meet Michael Stich, the runner-up last year, in the fourth round. Britain's contribution to the championships is in the hands of Greg Rusedski, Jeremy Bates, Mark Petchey and Tim Henman, a higher quota than usual in the men's singles.

Steffi Graf and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, who contested a magnificent Wimbledon final in July, are supposed to meet in the semi-finals here to decide who plays Seles in the final.

That is if all goes to seeding and Seles's form and injured left knee hold up. She has made only one wrong move in her comeback so far. After winning in Toronto, she boarded an aircraft bound for Boston instead of her home in Sarasota, Florida. Seles realised her mistake as the plane began to taxi towards the runway, and the pilot turned back. Her career had already taken off again.