Tennis: Agassi stakes out his claim to clay with a new partner: American high-roller heads for Monte Carlo with a different coach, a change of mind and a healthy body. John Roberts reports

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The Independent Online
HIGH season approaches, bringing rallies to pepper the Continental clay before the artillery commence pounding the British lawns. Andre Agassi is eager for a piece of the action, and has forsaken Las Vegas for the Monte Carlo Open.

The flamboyant American's only previous visit to Monaco, in 1991, coincided with Bjorn Borg's abortive comeback there. Both players were eliminated in the first round (Borg by the Spaniard Jordi Arrese, Agassi by the Austrian Horst Skoff), and neither result was treated as a great surprise. Borg was past it, and Agassi frequently performed as if he would never make it.

Triumph at Wimbledon in 1992 validated Agassi; injuries, rather than a cavalier attitude, have held him back since. Wrist surgery appears to have rid his racket arm of the tendinitis that crippled his form last year, and he says he has fully recovered from the latest ailment, a damaged muscle in the rib- cage.

Should Agassi succeed in Monte Carlo, he would become the first American to win the title since Jimmy Connors in 1981, though simply being fit enough to participate for more than a week of the clay court season would be an improvement on last year.

After losing in the quarter-finals in Barcelona, Agassi was off the tour for nine weeks nursing the injured wrist. He did not reappear until the Tuesday before the defence of his Wimbledon title, airing a modified service action on a grass court in Halle, Germany.

'I won't be playing in Halle this time,' he said before leaving Nevada yesterday. 'I'll most likely be over in London a week early to be practising.'

Before winning at Wimbledon two years ago, Agassi practised on a tennis court a friend had made for him on a golf course in Las Vegas. He smiled at the recollection. 'In 1992 I didn't go there (to Wimbledon) really believing I could win it, you know. Now that I consider that a possibility, I do everything I can to be as prepared as possible. A lot has changed in the way I prepare for events now, one of which is getting to these tournaments early and getting ready.'

Two weeks before his 24th birthday, the sport's biggest personality returns to Europe insisting that he is fitter, smarter and more determined than ever, thanks in no small measure to the recent acquisition of Brad Gilbert, a fellow player, as his coach.

'I feel that for the first time in my career I have great game plans when I go out on the court, because of Brad,' Agassi said. 'I think all the pieces are there for me to go into a tournament like Monte Carlo and win it, not lose first round.'

Gilbert, who is ranked No 37 in the world, only 17 places below Agassi, will impart his advice over the telephone next week. The 32- year-old Californian is spending time with his family after competing in the Far East. He intends to rejoin Agassi at the Atlanta tournament, the week after Monte Carlo, and then accompany him to the Italian, French and Wimbledon championships.

The pair have made it clear that their special relationship will count for nothing if they happen to play against each other. This makes for an interesting situation, particularly as their head-to-head series is tied, 4-4. Agassi won the last encounter in February, when starting his comeback after surgery with a successful defence of the Arizona title.

'We have hopes for a long future together,' Agassi said. 'The biggest thing is strategy on the court. When Brad plays he thinks very much. He's a good competitor. That's one thing I've missed in my game.

'Every time I step on the court, I'm finding a reason for wanting to be out there and wanting to win. I'm anxious to see how that translates into victories, but I'm hoping to go into the clay season as one of the guys expected to win the French Open. I'm hoping by the French Open I could be playing the best tennis I've ever played on clay.'

Agassi was not averse to talking a good campaign during the 10 years he spent playing under the sun-shaded gaze of his former coach, Nick Bollettieri. But two of his biggest disappointments occurred in French Open finals, the defeats in 1990 and 1991 by Andres Gomez and Jim Courier respectively. In 1990 he also lost to Pete Sampras in the final of the United States Open.

'I think I always had a certain amount of anxiety and tension being in the finals,' Agassi recalled. 'I just couldn't seem to allow myself to play my tennis when it came down to the last match. I think now it's a little different. I think I take each match as the same. The first round is as important as the finals, and it's not till it's all done that you realise the difference.'

Come to think of it, many of Agassi's first-round matches appeared to have a lot in common with his finals. 'Early-round matches have been a stumbling block for me,' he agreed, 'but now that I'm moving so much better I can go out there and be very disciplined and very methodical. I always seem to be in position to hit the ball, and it's making it tougher for those guys in the early rounds just to have a good few days and beat me.'

But does Agassi's new regimen of tactics, fitness and diet extend to cutting out McDonald's? 'Yeah,' he said, 'I think that's a safe bet.'