Agassi out as Sampras finds stride

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The Independent Online
He apologised "for any disappointment", but Andre Agassi's early departure yesterday was not entirely unexpected, given the 1992 champion's recent history.

The only surprise was that the third seed should fall in the opening round to a qualifier who had elevated his world ranking from No 600 to No 281 since the beginning of the year by playing satellite tournaments.

Until yesterday, Doug Flach, a 25-year-old from Atlanta, had lived in the shadow of his older brother, Ken, who twice won the Wimbledon men's doubles title in partnership with Robert Seguso. Whatever befalls him now, Flach the younger is assured of his moment of fame thanks to a 2- 6, 7-6, 6-4, 7-6 victory on Court No 2, the so-called "Graveyard of Champions".

Not that Agassi has looked anything like a champion of late. It was the 26-year-old Las Vegan's first match since losing to another compatriot, Chris Woodruff, in the second round of the French Open, and it was only the fifth match he had played since winning the Lipton title in Florida in March.

Doubts had been expressed about Agassi's fitness and commitment, but he ascribed his latest defeat to a bad day on the court. "I was off my game, no question," he said. "If you are a bit off on the grass courts, you can go wrong, right and left. I've definitely hit the ball better, no question. I knew after the first tie-breaker that the whole tone of the game had changed."

He also mentioned that he had been affected by a virus in recent days, but did not offer this as an excuse for losing to an opponent he had beaten in straight sets in their two previous matches.

Looking flat-footed, half-paced and dejected at times, Agassi stoked Flach's confidence with mistakes. In one game in the fourth set, he made an error on the forehand, an error on the backhand, missed a volley, and left a ball which landed in by at least three feet.

He trusts that his form will improve when he visits Flach's home town next month. "I've just got to shake it off and prepare for the Olympics and try to turn it around," he said.

Flach, who in the final round of qualifying recovered from two sets down to defeat Sweden's Anders Jarryd, declared himself to be "as excited as you can possibly get. It's the highlight of my career".

Although Flach did not witness Agassi's performance in Paris, he had heard that "he was kind of lacklustre". Discounting that, he told himself that things would be different here. "I know he loves this tournament, and I expected him to come out today and be really focused and try to kill me. So I was a little surprised that he wasn't as sharp as he usually is."

It is not the first time that Agassi has lost in the first round at Wimbledon. It happened when he played the French stylist Henri Leconte on his debut in 1987. Agassi gave Wimbledon a miss for three years after that.

"This has nothing to do with Wimbledon," he said yesterday. "I came out here and I was one of many guys trying to do well, and I didn't."

Two other seeded Americans, Michael Chang and Jim Courier, also evaporated, but the main man, Pete Sampras, survived the initial challenge in his campaign to win the title four times consecutively.

Chang, the sixth seed, was defeated 3-6, 7-6, 7-6, 6-4 by Alberto Costa, a Spanish clay-court specialist who was prepared to adapt to an attacking game for the grass courts.

Courier, the eighth seed and a finalist in 1993, lost 6-2, 6-4, 6-7, 6-3 to a compatriot, Jonathan Stark, ranked No 130 in the world, who has not progressed beyond the second round in four previous visits but who won the mixed doubles title with Martina Navratilova last year.

Sampras, who was also involved in an all-American contest, responded to a lively start by Richey Reneberg, winning 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.

Chang and Costa had only played each other once before, and that happened to be in the same round and on the same No 2 Court two years ago, when the Spaniard made his debut. Not that Chang has approached the status of being a champion in the "graveyard" at the All England Club.

Having won their previous encounter in straight sets, he advanced to the quarter-finals, where he lost to Sampras. Otherwise, his progress has been limited to a couple of appearances in the fourth round.

Chang's season at the Grand Slam championships has deteriorated since he finished the runner-up to Boris Becker on rubberised concrete at the Australian Open in January, accounting for Agassi in the semi-finals. He lost to Stefan Edberg in the third round of the French Open, a result cherished by the Swede, who had been Chang's opponent in the final on the clay of Stade Roland Garros when the American became the youngest male to win a Grand Slam singles title, at 17 years and three months in 1989.

Costa, one of the few players in the world capable of beating Thomas Muster on clay, swallowed his disappointment after losing in the second round of the French Open and made an effort to settle his feet on grass. He played in Rosmalen, in the Netherlands, and Nottingham.

Although he lost in the first round of both tournaments, he evidently gained sufficiently from the experience to produce a result to savour on his 21st birthday.

Courier had the misfortune to slip and "tweak the groin a little bit" during the fourth set, shortly after Stark had broken to take a 3-2 lead, but he did not use this as an excuse.

While others struggled, Boris Becker, the No 2 seed, made light of of Jean-Philippe Fleurian, a 30-year-old Frenchman ranked No 51, winning, 6-0, 6-2, 6-3. "I'm striking the ball very cleanly, serving well, moving well, and that's it," the German said.

Results, more reports, page 22