Pierce at the crossroads

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The Independent Online
THAT WAS the week that wasn't for the likes of Stefan Edberg and Mary Pierce, and the week that almost wasn't for two other champions, Andre Agassi and Boris Becker. For Monica Seles, at last, it was the week that was.

Until yesterday's thunderstorms, sun streamed down on the most relaxed and fun-tanned of the four major championships, brightening the enlarged Flinders Park, whose nine newly minted courts are handsomely backdropped by Melbourne's glittering silvery downtown skyline. But badly burnt in the second round were the reigning Queen Mary (Pierce) and the tennis nobleman Edberg, whose 13 Aussie excursions embraced the titles of 1985- 87 and finals of 1990-92-93.

Agassi was roughed up in a five-set tussle with the Argentine qualifier, Gaston Etlis. Becker fought through two, first with the Canadian Briton, Greg Rusedski, then the obscure Swede Tom Johansson, before buckling down yesterday to squelch the dangerous Swedish giant Magnus Larsson, 7-6 6- 3 6-3.

The Edberg and Pierce defeats were gloomy. Pierce, who has been unfaithful to the training regimen on which the 1995 championship and her No 4 ranking were based, and who accomplished little during the ensuing 12 months, departed without her customary bang, whimpering, "I was slow, never comfortable." "Mary's at the crossroads," her coach, Nick Bollettieri, said. "Only she can decide if she wants to go back to work again."

The straight-sets beneficiary was a fresh-faced Russian, Elena Likhovtseva, ranked No 51. She was, she said, surprised. "I thought Mary would be a lot tougher, hit too hard for me." No longer surprised, she beat Rita Grande yesterday, 6-3 6-1.

It was a long and painfully familiar journey for Pierce, and the the best victory of her 20 years for Likhovtseva, who was born in Central Asian Kazakhstan, but is now a Russian citizen and Moscow resident. In 1939 her grandfather, Mikhail Likhovtsev, living in a village outside Moscow, asked what he thought was an innocent question at a public meeting. Arrested, he was sentenced to 10 years' hard labour in a Stalinist camp in remote Kazakhstan. After release he raised a family in Alma-Ata, where his granddaughter, Elena, learned her tennis.

Likhovtseva pushed Pierce off a cliff to the greatest drop for a top 10-ranked player in the history of the women's computer - No 4 to No 13. In contrast to Pierce, Edberg gave everything in a desperate five-set defeat to part-time poet and painter, Jean-Philippe Fleurian, the French qualifier ranked 153rd in the world. But, celebrating his 30th birthday the following day, the elegant Stefan sadly found there wasn't much left of the old everything. "I know definitely that this should be my last Australian, my last season," he said.

Seles, the 1991, '92 and '93 champion, was, she sighed, "not really back yet - but very happy to be back in Melbourne after all this time away - three years.

"It's one of my favourite places. I'm not the same player that was here before, before the stabbing. Not focusing like I did. I think I'll have to play one full year to be really back."

She gets no agreement from Janet Lee, Katarina Studenikova and Julie Halard-Decugis, who were allowed to wander a total of 156 minutes, grubbing for 10 games among them. Halard-Decugis was the hardest before Seles took the last eight games on Friday night to win 7-5, 6-0.

Attacked by a spiral staircase, Agassi almost tripped himself out of his title a week ago. He banged his right knee but gamely shuffled through a tight match on Monday, during which world No 133 Etlis advanced to within two points of victory on six occasions.

"The inflammation went down before I beat Vince Spadea, and it's fine now," Agassi said after defeating another qualifier, Steve Bryan, to qualify for a joust with Jonas Bjorkman today.

Agassi, who knocked Pete Sampras from the Aussie throne a year ago, but had not played for three months because of a pulled pectoral muscle, is not particularly thrilled with his performances, and is less ecstatic about the press. "I'm still in the tournament," he said. "And you sons of bitches will question me all the way to the final."

Some of us wish we'd had the presence of mind of Ilie Nastase at the 1979 US Open when his opponent, John McEnroe, branded him an SOB. "Please call me Mr Son of Bitch," Nastase requested.