Tennis: Agassi's defeat prompts doubts: Champion prepared to defend Wimbledon title despite surprising loss

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The Independent Online
ANDRE AGASSI heads for Wimbledon and the defence of his crown next week with 96 minutes more competitive tennis behind him on grass than last year but with serious doubts challenging his ability to make a lasting impact. Defeat here yesterday in his comeback match after two months away with injury was not quite what the doctor had ordered.

After the disappointment of his first-round dismissal by Carl-Uwe Steeb, a grass court expert of such renown that in five Wimbledon attempts he has just one victory to his name, Agassi confirmed he would be in place to start the All England championships, as is traditional for the defending champion, on the centre court on Monday at 2pm.

The medical bulletin the 23- year-old American offered was encouraging for the legions of his British fans. The right wrist which has been racked with tendinitis is fine but there is pain from his right elbow which felt the strain of his first practice session at the weekend.

'It could be a once in a lifetime opportunity to go to

Wimbledon and defend the title and even if my wrist had hurt today it would have been tough for me to miss out' Agassi said. 'I am committed to Wimbledon regardless and I think I can do enough between now and next week to get me through some matches there. My elbow is a bit of a concern at the moment but that's what you get when you don't play for a month.'

You could almost have extended his no-play period to a month and a day. Following a bright and positive beginning Agassi, using a modified service action a la Jo Durie in an attempt to protect the wrist, quickly subsided and collapsed to a 7-5, 2-6, 1-6 loss in one hour and 36 minutes.

'I needed the match and wish I had the opportunity for more but this will help me,' added Agassi who wore a protective band around the injury. 'If I lose at Wimbledon I will go down with every bit of effort and energy I have. Anything can happen in this game. I could even go back and win it again.'

He triumphed in 1992 with no grass preparation at all. On these courts assiduously prepared by the former Wimbledon groundsman, Jim Thorne, the Las Vegas showman emerged with a wave and a smile to an enthusiastic crowd and a start that was characteristically audacious. An imposing first service game including two aces seemed to drum out the message: lay-off, what lay-off?

We were soon to be treated to some prize items from his inimitable array of passing shots as well, Agassi securing the first break in the sixth game but requiring a second, courtesy of two flashing backhands, to wrap up the set six games later.

It was all an illusion. Agassi's loss of serve as Steeb recovered to 4-5, was a portent of things to come as Steeb, ranked 59 in the world, rallied with shots that must have surprised even himself.

After the first game of the second set, a rapidly tiring Agassi had his service broken five times in seven attempts. When he engaged the German in extended play Steeb merely had to bide his time and wait for the errors that were sure to come.

'It's discouraging to step on court and compete in front of 10,000 people knowing you are not at your level,' Agassi said. 'Mentally and emotionally that is a drain.' Even so his pounds 200,000 appearance fee to help establish this competition must lessen the blow.

John Roberts assesses the Wimbledon draw, page 32

Bailey beats top seed, page 33

(Photograph omitted)