Tennis: Agassi again fails to make mark on clay: Surface tension for American

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ANDRE AGASSI was left scuffing the clay again yesterday, eliminated in the second round of the Italian Open by Stefano Pescosolido. While it was a popular local victory, it had an ominous overtone, virtually ending Agassi's prospects of a seeding for the forthcoming French Open.

Having raised himself to No 20 in the world since returning to the tour in February after recovering from wrist surgery, Agassi has so far failed to make his mark in Europe. He fell to the talented Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the first round of the Monte Carlo Open, and was unable to improve his form here after stumbling and swearing through an opening match against Tomas Carbonell of Spain.

Agassi was again intemperate with his tongue on the Centre Court at the Foro Italico yesterday, his use of the F-word on this occasion bringing a warning from the British umpire, Gerry Armstrong. Nor did the Las Vegan attempt to hide his frustration on arriving in the interview room after losing to the 22-year-old Roman, 6-3, 1-6, 6-3. 'I wasn't moving or hitting the ball cleanly,' he said. 'I just felt like shit, to be honest.'

The fitness and enthusiasm evident when Agassi was bouncing around the concrete courts of Arizona and Florida a few months ago appears to have drained from him on contact with the slower surface. As when losing to Kafelnikov in Monte Carlo, Agassi made sufficient mistakes for his opponent to feel comfortable.

'I don't expect to do well at the French playing this way,' Agassi said, acknowledging that the crowd's support for his opponent had not been a factor in his defeat. 'It could have been worse if they weren't into it,' he said. 'I thought it would have helped me get more into it emotionally, but it just didn't happen. I definitely wasn't rising to the occasion. It's been a couple of years since I've played on clay, and I need to do something about my footwork and my shot selection and my patience.'

Even so, Pescosolido, ranked No 58, seemed about to become just another game but over-matched contestant as Agassi swept through the second set, but the Italian proved to have far more resilience than the former Wimbledon champion, who was still trying to console himself long after the match. 'There's no need to panic,' Agassi said. 'I've just got to get to feel good out there. When I feel good I can win matches.'

Other than the fact that Pescosolido once defeated Michael Chang in consecutive weeks, there was little in his record to suggest he would be able to counter Agassi's assertive groundstrokes. Then again, matches cannot be relied upon to go with seeding, otherwise Agassi would be facing Chang in the third round. Instead, we have Pescosolido vesus Jacco Eltingh.

Chang, who had laboured to ovecome the Australian, Patrick Rafter, in the opening round lost

6-3, 7-6, to the Dutchman, a result which represents another backward step on clay for Chang, who, at 17 in 1989, became the youngest male to win the French Open.

In Paris last year, Chang lost in the second round to the German Bernd Karbacher, having been beaten in the semi-finals of the Italian Open by Jim Courier, the defending champion, 6-0 in the final set.

Losing to Eltingh is no disgrace. He is one of only two players to have beaten Pete Sampras, the world No 1, this year (in Philadelphia). He also defeated Sampras last year (in Atlanta) and Courier was another of his notable victims (in Kuala Lumpur).

Moreover, the 23-year-old Dutchman is half of the world's top doubles team. He and his compatriot Paul Haarhuis won the Italian title last year en route to capturing the ATP Tour championship in Johannesburg.

It was also an encouraging day for Karim Alami, the only other player to have defeated Sampras this year, when the top man played his opening match of the season in Qatar. The 21-year-old Moroccan beat Alexander Volkov, the 15th seed, 6-4, 6-4.

Alex Corretja had dreams of becoming the third player to topple Sampras, but the Wimbledon champion survived a trial by topspin to continue his advance, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, after 2hr 14min.