Tennis: Agassi falls at first hurdle in French quest

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The Independent Online
AS IF 19 representatives in the men's singles and nine in the women's event were not enough to begin with, the Spaniards co-opted a teenage Russian qualifier to eliminate Andre Agassi in the first round of the French Open yesterday.

Marat Safin, 6ft 4in of power and talent from Moscow, has lived and trained in Valencia for the past four years, three of them courtesy of sponsorship by a Swiss bank. His victory, 5-7, 7-5, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2, in his first Grand Slam tournament was even more startling than his compatriot Yevgeny Kafelnikov's performance in pushing Pete Sampras to five sets in the second round of the 1994 Australian Open.

Agassi, who arrived for his interview with an ice pack on an inflamed right shoulder, has once again been denied a French title to complete his collection of the Grand Slams. The Las Vegan's early departure has prompted him to consider playing at Queen's Club, London, or Halle, in Germany, as part of his grass-court preparation for Wimbledon next month.

Safin, aged 18 and ranked No 116 in the world, was overwhelmed by Agassi, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3, in Russia's Davis Cup tie against the United States on a concrete court in Atlanta last month. "It's a very different story," Safin said, his English bearing the distinct trace of a Spanish accent. "I was playing for my country in the United States. It was very difficult." None the less, he took Jim Courier to five sets in the fifth and decisive rubber.

Yesterday, on the Suzanne Lenglen Court , Agassi, ranked No 20, attempted to out-hit the pounding Russian even after he "felt something happen" in his shoulder during the opening set.

"There's no way I'm going to ever start slicing somebody to try to beat them," Agassi said. "I'd slap myself if I started doing that. I feel like I've got to control the point." The quest was ruined by 82 unforced errors.

Safin now plays the defending champion, Gustavo Kuerten, last year's sensation from Brazil. "I wanted to beat Agassi, but I think I was really lucky playing so well in this match," Safin said. "I do not think I will beat Kuerten. I'm very tired.''

The Spaniards were happy to have played a part in Safin's success, having lost Sergi Bruguera, the 1993 and 1994 champion, who was defeated in straight sets by Hernan Gumy, of Argentina.

Originally coached by his mother, Louisa Islanova, a former semi-finalist at the French junior championships who was ranked in the top 10 in Russia, Safin has had a Spanish mentor, Rafael Mensua, since the age of 14.

For the past year, Safin has been a client of International Management Group, whose founder, Mark McCormack, demonstrated yesterday that even agents can have a soft centre by standing up and taking snapshots of Monica Seles as she competed only 12 days after the death of her father and coach, Karolj.

McCormack, who organised Seles's comeback match against Martina Navratilova in Atlantic City 27 months after she was stabbed by a spectator in Germany in 1993, was seated beside her mother, Esther, on the Centre Court.

The 24-year-old Seles, in a black tennis dress and wearing her father's wedding ring on a chain around her neck, was barely troubled by her Australian opponent, Annabel Ellwood, winning, 6-0, 6-2, after 52 minutes.

"I was unsure if I would be ready, emotionally and probably tennis-wise," Seles said. "It's my mom's first time here in five or six years. I don't think I could have come if she wouldn't have come. It's really nice to be here together.''

Asked if she had found peace of mind on the court, Seles, the No 6 seed, said, "Not so much on the court. I think it's just being away from the house, having so many memories, every corner you look into, so many things, so many people coming up, so many of my dad's friends. It's just really tough. Sooner or later I'm going to have to get over that hurdle. Right now, I don't want to do deal with it. It's been a tough 15 months for my family.''

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