Tennis: Agassi exposed under floodlights: Kafelnikov calls the shots as American's clay court preparations for French Open are undermined by overdose of forehand errors

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The Independent Online
ANDRE AGASSI'S movements on the court here yesterday left much to be desired, but at least he came up with a neat turn of phrase to summarise his performance: 'I played like a dumb ass.'

The Las Vegan's second visit to the Monte Carlo Open was strangely reminiscent of his first: he lost his opening match after threatening to blow his opponent away in the first set. Three years ago, the Austrian Horst Skoff bounced back to win 0-6, 7-6, 3-6. Yesterday it was the turn of the Russian, Andrei Kafelnikov, to pick himself up, dust off the clay and triumph, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4.

Agassi returned to Europe filled with good intentions after playing impressively on the concrete courts of his homeland since returning to the tour after wrist surgery. But his errors, particularly on the forehand side, gave Kafelnikov too good an opportunity to miss.

The 20-year-old Russian, who came within two points of defeating Pete Sampras, the world No 1, at the Australian Open in January, has been in a slump of late. Since helping his country overcome Australia in the Davis Cup last month, he has lost in the first round of three tournaments without even taking a set. Last week he fell to Jim Courier in Nice.

After 27 minutes of yesterday's match, it seemed that the sequence would continue. Agassi, with the actress Brooke Shields watching admiringly from the side of the court, recovered from the shock of losing his serve in the opening game and swept through the opening set.

The script altered dramatically. As dusk settled over a dismal day, the floodlights cruelly emphasised Agassi's every mistake. Kafelnikov took a 4-0 lead and did not allow a service break in the fifth game to disturb his confidence.

In the final set, Kafelnikov broke for 3-2, stuttered in the next game to allow the American back into the match, and then watched Agassi mistime his way back into trouble in the ninth game. Serving for the match, the Russian delivered an ace timed at 124 mph on the first point and capitalised on his opponents mistakes. Agassi saved one match point, but then directed a forehand wide when returning a second serve.

'I'm disappointed,' Agassi said, 'because I felt I was in control of the whole thing and just gave it away.' Kafelnikov did not argue the point. 'He made more easy errors,' the Russian said. 'I didn't try to do anything special, I just tried to hit the ball back.'

The day's other matches went much as expected, though Michael Stich, the top seed, did not have an easy time against Guy Forget on the Frenchman's return to the tour with a wild card after an absence of 11 months recovering from knee surgery. The German won, 6-2, 7-5, but Forget, backed by a sympathetic crowd, fought for every point.

It was Stich's first match since losing to Britain's Mark Petchey three weeks ago in the first round of the South African Open.

Stefan Edberg, the No 2 seed, made his customary tentative start to a clay-court event and had his serve broken three times by one Thomas Gollwitzer from Deggendorf on the way to winning, 6-4, 6-4.

Gollwitzer began playing at the age of eight. Twenty years later, having qualified to play one of the world's greatest players on one of the sport's most spectacular centre courts, the German was determined to make the most of it, come rain or shine.

Rain came, and long points in the opening match between Jaime Yzaga and Arnaud Boetsch further delayed Gollwitzer's treat. The spectators were becoming restless, especially the younger ones high in Grandstand E, who amused themselves by making paper planes between the points, and sometimes during them.

A veritable air force had taken shape by the time Edberg and Gollwitzer arrived on court, and flights began with Edberg leading 3-1 and preparing to receive serve. One plane glided to the court and landed in front of the Swede. He picked it up and attempted to return it, but turbulence caused it to nose-dive to the feet of the baseline judge.

With the score at 3-2, another plane made a graceful journey from one side of the court to the other, and the umpire requested that further flights be suspended. Not everyone heeded the plea, and Edberg was distracted when losing his serve for 3-3. 'Yes, but it's nice something happened,' the Swede said good-naturedly afterwards. 'They had some fun, so it's OK.'

Results, Sporting Digest, page 35

(Photograph omitted)

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