Irritable Agassi makes heavy weather of Diaz

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The Independent Online
No sooner had Monica Seles played her part in a dedication ceremony to re-name Court A in honour of Suzanne Lenglen at the French Open here yesterday than Andre Agassi appeared to confuse the place with the nearby Avenue Gordon Bennett. The American's penchant for expletives brought him within one curse of disqualification.

Agassi became increasingly irritable as he attempted to hold his game together in almost constant drizzle on a cold, miserable opening day at Stade Roland Garros. He was warned for one audible obscenity and penalised a point for another.

That took the No 3 seed to the brink when he hardly needed the additional handicap of disciplinary worries. His erratic form had already awakened hope in his opponent, Jacobo Diaz, a Spanish qualifier ranked No 261 in the world. Agassi managed to regain control of his shots and his tongue after a 90-minute rain delay in the fourth set, advancing to the second round, 6-1, 6-7, 6-4, 6-4.

"I have a tendency to make it more difficult on myself than it needs to be," Agassi acknowledged, while rejecting the notion that he ever feared he would be leaving the grounds in disgrace. "I felt pretty much in control as far as that goes," he said.

The umpire, Australia's Wayne McKewen, was also involved in a notorious incident during one of Agassi's matches at the US Open in 1990. On that occasion Agassi spat in McKewen's direction, but he was given the benefit of the doubt by the supervisor after pleading that he was not aiming at the umpire.

Agassi's struggle within himself yesterday was symptomatic of the sense of anxiety which pervaded the start of the championships, with so many competitors desperate to reassure themselves that they were healthy enough and sufficiently well prepared to make a decent challenge. Although Mary Pierce seemed in danger of catching her death of cold in a skimpy dress, the leading players emerged unscathed.

In Seles's case, the only threat came during the Court Lenglen ceremony, when one of the dignitaries evidently forgot about her injury and gave her damaged shoulder a friendly pat. Otherwise, her first appearance here since completing a hat-trick of singles triumphs four years ago - before Gunther Parche and his knife disrupted her life - went well.

Judgement regarding the efficiency of Seles's serve, however, will have to be reserved until she faces a more challenging opponent than the 22- year-old Caroline Dhenin, a sturdy French wild card ranked No 168 in the world. There was certainly no lack of potency in Seles's returns as she swept to victory, 6-1, 6-1, in 52 minutes.

"Last Thursday I stopped my practice because I literally could not serve," Seles said. "Sunday was the first day I served easily. I just have to make the best of it, take it a match at a time, but I definitely have to serve some better serves.''

Pete Sampras felt no twinges from his back injury when defeating Sweden's Magnus Gustafsson, 6-1, 7-5, 7-6, but the top seed knows that his problems here are just about to begin. A year ago, his second-round match against Sergi Bruguera would have been hailed as an ideal final.

Bruguera, the champion in 1993 and 1994, is not ranked high enough to be seeded this time. Yesterday he advanced to meet Sampras with a straight- sets win against Javier Sanchez, a Spanish compatriot. "My road here just gets tougher," Sampras mused, remembering that Bruguera eliminated him in four sets when they played in the quarter-finals in 1993.

While Bruguera's game was made for clay courts, Sampras is still learning to come to terms with the sport's slowest surface. "I'm trying to play on my terms, be aggressive, not be so passive like I have been in the past," the American said.

Tim Henman is another who needs to find his feet on clay, although the British No 1's debut here was not helped by five weeks' absence because of a virus. Henman's participation ended with a 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 defeat by Kris Goossens, of Belgium.

Being French, there were tears from Henri Leconte in his retirement year. He bade farewell by climbing into the umpire's chair and addressing the crowd after losing to Sweden's Thomas Johansson, 6-1, 6-1, 6-4.