Tennis: Agassi sets up classic contest

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ANDRE AGASSI has accomplished great things this season, winning both the French Open and the US Open as well as succeeding Pete Sampras as the year-end world No 1. But one thing Agassi has failed to do is beat Sampras, who mastered him in the Wimbledon final and went on to defeat him in straight sets in Los Angeles and Cincinnati.

This afternoon Agassi will have another opportunity when he plays his American compatriot in the round-robin segment at the ATP Tour Championship here. Judging by their opening performances yesterday, it could be a classic. Agassi capitalised on the nerves and flawed serves of Nicolas Lapentti, of Ecuador, and Sampras dispatched Gustavo Kuerten, of Brazil, which made for an uncomfortable introduction to the tournament for the two Latin Americans.

Agassi gave short shrift to the MC during Monday's presentation ceremony. "The guy had horrendous breath," Agassi said. "The more I answered, the more he was going to talk."

Agassi also encouraged Lapentti to keep his distance yesterday, although the concern this time was with the potential of his opponent's tennis rather than the quality of his breath. Agassi won, 6-1, 6-2, after 70 minutes.

Nor was there anything personal in Sampras' harsh treatment of Kuerten, even though the Californian herniated a disc in his lower back while practising with the Brazilian on the eve of the US Open in August. Consequently, Sampras arrived in Hanover having played only one match in three months, a victory against the Spaniard Francisco Clavet in Paris earlier this month, after which a recurrence of the back injury caused him to retire from the tournament.

Sampras took only 53 minutes to overwhelm Kuerten, 6-2, 6-3, in what was their first competitive match, but scarcely a second passed without observers wondering if Sampras would make a movement that might cause him to breakdown again. They need not have worried. Sampras played smoothly and pain free, to the extent that he hit one of his signature slam-dunk smashes and also delivered a backhand winner that will be remembered whatever befalls him this week.

Leading 4-2, 15-0 in the second set, Sampras was pushed so far back during the next point that he was close to lurching into the boards, but he had the balance and presence of mind to hit the backhand so sharply down the line that Kuerten could only watch in admiration as the ball struck home.

"That's one of those shots you hit once every five years," Sampras said. "And I surprised myself. I'm sure everyone in the building was surprised that I was able to pull that shot off." Executing the spectacular was a bonus for Sampras. "The relief is that the back feels strong," he said. "I was pleasantly surprised the way I played. Mentally, I felt very free with my movement. I can't ask for a better day."

Since damaging his back while practising with Kuerten in New York, Sampras has taken greater care preparing for matches. "If anything, it taught me a valuable lesson," he said. "When I hurt my back I wasn't 100 per cent warmed up. I went hard and I felt it. Now, for the rest of my career, I need to do exercises three times a week and make sure that my body's warm and I'm ready to go when I go out and play and practice."

Sampras has won 16 out of 26 matches against Agassi dating back to 1989. He has prevailed in five of their seven meetings on indoor courts, although Agassi will remember defeating Sampras in straight sets in a round-robin contest in Frankfurt in 1990 en route to winning the ATP Tour Championship.