Agassi into gear but Stich is undone

TENNIS: WIMBLEDON
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The Independent Online
JOHN ROBERTS

Tennis Correspondent

In deference to the surroundings and the heat of the day, the top seed protected his cropped head with what appeared to be a sponsored white knotted hankie. Andre Agassi was back at Wimbledon, a world No 1 on Court No 1, undoubtedly the No 1 attraction.

Though others made their entrance on the Centre Court, Agassi is not the type to be upstaged. "There are a lot of great matches," he shrugged. "Stich/Eltingh was expected to be a battle."

Maybe, but Michael Stich wilted in the sun. The 1991 champion, seeded No 9, made his second consecutive first-round exit, this time falling to the Dutchman, Jacco Eltingh, who probably surprised himself by winning in little more than an hour and a half, 6-4, 7-6, 6-1.

Out on Court Four, another member of the supporting cast, Marc Rosset, the Olympic champion and 10th seed, also sought in vain to find form. The lofty Swiss was defeated 6-0, 6-7, 7-5, 6-2 by Michael Joyce, a Californian, ranked No 119.

Two days earlier, Stich had held seven match points against Rosset before losing in the final of the Halle tournament, in Germany. Perhaps both were feeling the effects, though Stich offered no excuses after losing to the world No 27. "In the first two and a half sets, I tried everything that was possible for me on the day," he said, "but that was just not good enough to beat Jacco. He played everything better than I did today."

Agassi, who had not competed since losing on clay to the Russian, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, in the quarter-finals of the French Open, welcomed an opportunity to ease his way into the championships against a novice.

Andrew Painter, a 19-year-old from George Town, Tasmania, with a ranking of 530, had scrapped through the pre-qualifying tournament to win a place in his first mainstream tour event - at Wimbledon, of all places. Drawn to face Agassi, he tried to make light of it, saying he would at least be able to see his opponent's serve ("I'm not sure I would even get close to Sampras") and that it was in his favour that he knew a lot more about Agassi's game than the Las Vegan knew about his.

Painter's strokes produced a sorry picture. He served 17 double faults - four in a row in the seventh game of the second set - which negated his 13 aces. Agassi required only 77 minutes to win, 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 and advance to a second-round match against a compatriot, Patrick McEnroe.

Having defeated the more famous of the McEnroe brothers in the semi-finals en route to the title in 1992, Agassi fancies his chances. "Patrick and I played a few times, and he hasn't managed to get me yet," he said. "But he's a good, calculating player."

Agassi's movement betrayed no sign of the hip injury which affected his performance in Paris. "It set me back a little bit, but now it's 100 per cent," he said, adding that he was not too bothered to have missed two weeks of match practice.

"I've done it before," he said, recounting how he stormed Wimbledon from a standing start three years ago. "Quite honestly, my feeling is the more you play on grass, the worse you get, with the bounces and with the unpredictability of it. Sometimes a lot of your fundamentals can break down after a period of time."

During the middle of the tournament, Agassi endeavours to practise on a hard court - "to get back on a true-bouncing court and get your stroke back" - but he was quick to emphasise that he has a soft spot for the Wimbledon lawns.

"I don't think, generally speaking, that across the world a lot of grass- court tennis would be enjoyed as much, with the shorter points. But the special environment at Wimbledon makes it unique as the only big tournament on grass. I've really grown to love it. Granted, there are times when you're up break point and the ball bounces and almost hits you in the head, but outside that you just kind of take it as it comes and enjoy being part of the history here."

He has noticed a difference made by the use of a ball with slightly reduced pressure - "the abnormal amount of double faults I've seen from the bigger servers. It's a heavier ball, and it seems like it's made a bit of difference in the serving statistics. You can still hit through it and hit aces, but I think the second serve seems to be a bit more of a factor. It's a lot easier to get a heavy ball low at their feet for a return than it is a good, effective second serve."

This, of course, works to Agassi's advantage. "Well, you know, 6-2, 6- 2, 6-1 today. So far, so good. I like the balls."

Agassi not only accepted being placed on Court One, he even questioned his right to be seeded ahead of his rival, Pete Sampras. "I would have to say that Pete should be favoured to win here, seeing that he's won two in a row and that he won at Queen's," he said. "But I don't think it's a big deal either way.

"Outside the honour of being seeded No 1, the reality of it is that it doesn't matter what you're seeded. I think we've seen that proven time and time again. And I think that Pete would feel the same way, whether he's seeded one or two. As long as we're not meeting each other before the semis, you don't feel too bad about it. You just do your best to get through a lot of tough matches."

Agassi's hip having survived the initial test, we waited to see how Boris Becker's calf muscle would withstand the strain. The three times champion, seeded No 3, also had a comfortable opening match, defeating Emilio Alvarez, one of the "lucky losers" from the qualifying, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4.

Stefan Edberg, who used to dispute the title with Becker, and was twice a winner, made his way through the opening round by the same score against another Spaniard, Oscar Martinez.

The saddest sight of the day was Pat Cash's departure from Court Three, forced to retire because of an ankle injury after losing the first set against the Belgian, Dick Norman, 7-6. We were left to wonder whether the 1987 champion would return to grace the lawns again.

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