Tennis: Agassi ready to raise his game again

AND SO it is to be Pat Rafter against Andre Agassi in the semi- finals, the currently hairy one against the former. Agassi has great respect for the Australian's game but fears most his hair-do. "It's a little distracting playing someone with a ponytail," the No 4 seed said after his 6-3, 6- 4, 6-4 destruction of Gustavo Kuerten yesterday.

Kuerten has been barely recognisable this fortnight from the man who won the French Open two years ago. The old shaggy look has been replaced by tight, bronze curls. At least he has had the choice.

Agassi's Hell's Angels tresses roared off over the horizon soon after he won the title here in 1992. Mother nature is his hairdresser these days.

A biblical reference might, therefore, suggest that the American would be a weakened figure today at the age of 29. Nothing could be further from the truth. The man has moved on, like the game itself. "I think everybody is playing better, not only me," he said.

It is difficult to argue with Agassi. Yesterday he was beautifully brutal, exposing Kuerten as the grass court novice he remains. The only caveat seems to be that Agassi has yet to be truly tested. Kuerten was playing a game and surface with which he is not familiar and none of the American's previous four opponents were ranked in the top 50. There is a suspicion he has been feasting on ants. Agassi says he will play better when he has to.

The Las Vegan is perfect for this place, both in character and style. On court his points are neither too long nor too short. He invariably collects the attention quickly with a sparkling return and then produces a snapshot of finishing skill before spectator boredom sets in. Agassi enjoys the fact that his aggressive ground strokes bring swift reward here. He has to play twice as many to engineer a similar effect on slower courts. And the crowd love it.

The audience was unusually divided for an Agassi match yesterday as Team Samba had come to town to support Kuerten. There were yellow shirts and Brazilian flags brightening the arena, while a sole Stars and Stripes fluttered. This did not disturb Agassi greatly. Rather it brought back thoughts of his first tour victory, in 1987 at Itaparica. "I remember it very well," he said. "The place was going nuts. The atmosphere they [the Brazilians] can create is probably unmatched by any other country. I remember a lot of women in dental floss bathing suits in the crowd. It was very distracting."

Agassi managed to control himself rather better from the outset yesterday. In fact, it was Kuerten who underperformed so badly on the big stage that we wondered if this was Ronaldo brought before us. The canaries in the stands sang for "Guga", but they sang in vain.

Agassi sat with a towel draped over his head like a monk's cowl at the change-rounds. Then he emerged, his crown glistening, to spread violent drives to all points of a court which produced inconsistent bounce.

It was hard to view this figure as the man who, just two years ago, was down to No 141 in the world. He has dragged himself back, but there have been casualties along the way. His wife, Brooke Shields, became gradually superfluous as her husband gave his sport a last hurrah.

Now Agassi has won a French Open title and aims to become the 10th man to hold that championship and the Wimbledon title concurrently. Bjorn Borg, in 1980, was the last. He is the fifth man in history to win all four Grand Slam tournaments and the first on the diverse surfaces of hard court, clay and grass. He is also two matches away from fulfilling a further ambition of winning the same Grand Slam event twice.

Agassi has relatively little time left in tennis but more time now than ever before to rejoice in his profession. "As you get older you have more appreciation about what you are experiencing out there and the anticipation is considerably more," he said. "I don't think I enjoyed it as much then [when he first won here]. You build a lot of memories together out there, year after year in these tournaments. You leave your heart and soul there, disappointments and achievements. At the end of the day, 14 years later, people know you pretty well."