Agassi takes steps to avoid a painful exit

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Andre Agassi's defence of his Australian Open crown nearly came to grief in the first round at Flinders Park in Melbourne yesterday when he stumbled against a combination of a spiral staircase and an unknown qualifier, Gaston Etlis of Argentina

Agassi, the world No 2, was hampered by a knee injury, sustained when he fell into an iron rail as he climbed his hotel stairs and, with the damaged joint heavily strapped on court, the shaven-haired American slipped to within two points of defeat against Etlis, a clay-court specialist ranked 133.

Agassi finally triumphed 3-6, 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-3, after three hours and 18 minutes - but he admitted afterwards that he would almost certainly have lost if his inexperienced opponent had taken his opportunities.

Etlis, playing in his first grand slam event, was twice within two points of making Agassi the first defending champion to lose to a qualifier in the first round in grand slam history.

Roscoe Tanner is the only man to have gone out in the first round while defending his title - at the 1977 Australian Open - and Agassi looked to be following him as Etlis served for the match at 5-3 in the fourth set before leading the subsequent tie-break 5-3 only for his nerve to fail.

"He was getting pretty creative in finding ways to lose the match," Agassi, the second seed, said afterwards with his damaged knee packed in ice. "I felt a bit limited about what I could do," said the Las Vegan, who added he was confident he would be fit for his second-round match against his fellow American, Vince Spadea.

Agassi's hard labours would have been avidly watched by his seeded compatriots, Michael Chang and Jim Courier, who are both in his half of the draw.

Chang, the world No 5, was ruthlessly efficient in his 6-2, 6-1, 6-2 demolition of David Rikl, of the Czech Republic, while Courier was a little more stretched in his 7-5, 7-6, 6-4 defeat of Belgium's Johan van Herck. Chang, beaten in last year's final by Pete Sampras, now meets Jakob Hlasek in the second round while Courier faces Jeff Tarango.

Tarango, who caused outrage when he stormed off the court at Wimbledon last year, was perfectly behaved after a ban on him competing was overturned following an apology last month for his extraordinary walk-off.

The main casualty on the opening day of the tournament came in the women's event, where Natasha Zvereva, the 12th seed from Belarus, went down to Israel's Anna Smashnova 2-6, 6-4, 5-7.

Gabriela Sabatini, the sixthseeded Argentinian, impressively beat America's Shaun Stafford 6-0, 6-1 in only 52 minutes, while Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, who lost last year's final to Mary Pierce, also had an easy first-round workout against Beate Reinstadler, beating the Austrian in straight sets, 6-2, 6-2.