Tennis: Agassi walks out after dinner snub

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For someone who needs no introduction, Andre Agassi appears to have taken inordinate offence after an oversight during a dinner at the United States Open.

The Las Vegan subsequently walked out on Monday night's parade of champions, the highlight of the inauguration of the $254m (pounds 175m) Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Harry Marmion, the president of the US Tennis Association, neglected to read out Agassi's name at the dinner for former champions held at the National Tennis Centre a few hours before the dedication ceremony.

Although Agassi's wife, the actress Brooke Shields, told reporters before the dinner: "We're here to honour Arthur Ashe," there was no sign of the 1994 champion as 37 tennis greats, from Donald Budge to Steffi Graf, did just that.

Boos from many among the 20,000 spectators greeted an announcement that Agassi was unable to attend the ceremony. He had a first-round match on his mind, but that was scheduled to take place 24 hours later.

Agassi denied yesterday that he had left in a huff. "Something arose," he said. "It was a tough call." He did not elaborate.

Chris Evert, a six-times champion, confirmed that Agassi's name had been omitted at the dinner. "They forgot to mention him," she said. There was a mistake made. You know, you've just got to take it with a grain of salt and kind of throw these things off sometimes. I was surprised he wasn't there. He should have been there."

At the same time, Evert voiced a degree of understanding. "It's a little easier for someone like me, for the players that have retired," she said. "If Harry had forgotten my name, but made a joke of it later, I'm going to go on the court. That's just life. I remember being a player, and I remember feeling as a player, thinking only about myself, being defensive, all those feelings that you have.

"I really, honestly think that Andre was hurt by that. I think that he doesn't have the confidence in himself. I think that's contributed to it. I think he's feeling a little insecure anyway about his tennis, about the way the press has sort of given him a hard time."

Agassi was not the only absentee from the parade. Pete Sampras, due to play as soon as Whitney Houston finished singing "One Moment in Time", remained in the locker-room, watching the show on television. "I was in my tennis gear, so I wasn't planning on it," the defending champion said after defeating Australia's Todd Larkham, 6-3, 6-1, 6-3. "If I didn't play tonight, there would have been a good chance I would have attended."

Jimmy Connors, a heroic competitor who won the title five times, was not here to please the crowd on this occasion, choosing instead to play in one of his seniors' events. Connors, it may be remembered, boycotted a parade of champions at Wimbledon's centenary championships in 1977.

Arthur Ashe was once sued by Connors after suggesting that Connors was unpatriotic with regard to his lack of commitment to the United States Davis Cup team. The action was dropped after Ashe defeated Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon final.

Evert, who was once engaged to Connors, expressed disappointment that he did not attend Monday's ceremony. "He would have gotten the biggest roar tonight if he was here," Evert said. "You know, he was the US Open. Jimmy, with the fist, the arm, the pelvic thrust, evoked like savage emotions from people up in the stands. He's the people's choice."

Monica Seles was so thrilled to be in the parade that she took a video camera on the court. "It was a very special night, and down the years, 20 years or something, I can show my family or whatever," said Seles, who defeated Kristie Boogert, of the Netherlands, 6-1, 6-2, shortly before the ceremony.

Britain's representative was Virginia Wade, and although we no longer have female players capable of beating the best, the nation's presence in the women's singles was underlined yesterday by Sam Smith, of Essex.

Smith, a qualifer, defeated Australia's Nicole Pratt, 6-3, 6-1 and next plays Conchita Martinez, the No 7 seed, or Jennifer Capriati. Having dropped out of the game for three years to take a history degree, Smith is in the second year of her comeback. Simply having a woman in the singles draw here is a bonus nowadays.

Tim Henman, who plays Thomas Muster in his opening match today, has consulted Stefan Edberg, who is something of an expert on the Austrian No 5 seed. Edberg defeated Muster in all 10 of their matches, winning on every surface.

Martina Hingis opened the tournament with a 6-0, 6-1 victory against the American Tami Jones, whose next big challenge will be motherhood.

Results, Digest, page 23

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