Tennis: Agassi accepts a blank cheque

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The Independent Online
IT WOULD be misleading to say Andre Agassi went for broke on every shot yesterday, because the Las Vegan was guaranteed $100,000 from the moment he hit a ball at the $6.7m Compaq Grand Slam Cup.

Returning serve with the sort of power normally associated with Greg Rusedski's first serve, Agassi reduced the Frenchman Cedric Pioline to a state of embarrassment, though not financial embarrassment. The 1997 Wimbledon runner-up collected $100,000 (pounds 60,000) - or $50 per second - for losing in the first round, 6-0, 6-0, after only 34 minutes.

If the score and match time rings familiar, it is because it tallies with Steffi Graf's demolition of Natasha Zvereva in the 1988 French Open women's singles final, the second leg of the German's Grand Slam.

While Agassi's dismantling of Pioline ranks among the shortest men's matches since chairs were introduced for change-overs, it took five minutes longer than Rusedski's 6-0, 6-0 sprint past Germany's Carsten Arriens, of Germany, in Sydney in 1996. The difference is that Rusedski was playing for world ranking points, whereas Agassi's super-schnell as a wild card here was about money. His win was worth $175,000 at a rate of $80 per second.

The Frenchman gleaned only 17 points, three of them break points in the opening game. He was weak at the knees, he said, partly because Agassi played so well but also because of pain in the joints after practising.

Pioline was treated to some derisive whistling by spectators, a sound familiar to Agassi on previous visits to Munich's Olympic Hall. Yesterday's win was the American's second in four appearances. He twice withdrew from the tournament because of injury, and his last visit, in 1996, ended in boos after a poor performance against the Australian Mark Woodforde.

Agassi was given a wild card this time because the organisers felt the need of an attraction after the withdrawal of three of the four Grand Slam champions, Pete Sampras, Pat Rafter and Carlos Moya.

Having advanced yesterday to meet Petr Korda, the Australian Open champion, in the quarter-finals, Agassi was greeted by an Italian journalist who thanked him for not turning up to play for the United States in last weekend's Davis Cup semi-final against Italy in Milwaukee.

Agassi, who's annual charity gala in Las Vegas clashed with the Davis Cup, criticised the US Tennis Association president, Harry Marmion, for not consulting the players about the venue. "It's a good thing that guy's getting out," Agassi said. "He was pathetic. I mean, you have to be pretty pathetic to take the best United States Davis Cup player and absolutely make him never want to play again. That's Harry Marmion - M-A-R-M-I-O- N."

The same man was the only one to oppose Agassi's wild card to this event, but Marmion is not alone in viewing the award of a wild card anybody as detrimental to the credibility of this event. It is for the year's best performers in the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open, 12 men and eight women. Agassi did not qualify, and the man next in line on merit, Byron Black, of Zimbabwe, was overlooked.

"I do have sympathy [for Black]," Agassi said. "Those who deserve to be here should be. By the same token, all I can do is request a wild card and hope that I get the support. The most I can do is go out there, work hard, and do my best to play well."

In the day's other men's match, Hicham Arazi staged an ultimately fruitless fightback against the Czech Republic's Karol Kucera, who served for the match at 5-2 in the second set but was broken. He finally beat the Moroccan, 6-4, 6-4.

Arazi would have been hard put to match the turnaround witnessed in the women's match as Jana Novotna, the Wimbledon champion, treated the crowd to one of her capitulations. Novotna held a match point against Patty Schnyder when serving at 5-4 in the second set. Having failed to convert the opportunity, Novotna took a 5-2 lead in the third set. She was caught and passed, the Swiss winning, 2-6, 7-5, 7-5. In the semi-finals, Schnyder plays her compatriot Martina Hingis, the world No 1.

GRAND SLAM CUP (Munich) Men's first round: A Agassi (US) bt C Pioline (Fr) 6-0 6-0; K Kucera (Cz Rep) bt H Arazi (Mor) 6-4 6-4. Women's first round: P Schnyder (Swit) bt J Novotna (Cz Rep) 2-6 7-5 7-5.