Tennis: Agassi's star on the rise again

Australian Open: A former world No 1 has recovered from the depths of despair to become a contender once more
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A WEARY Christian Vink returned to his hotel room in Melbourne last night, having failed to qualify for the Australian Open. The German left-hander, ranked No 129 in the world, had overcome one lower-ranked Swedish opponent in Patrik Fredriksson, but had fallen to a second, Fredrik Jonsson.

For Vink this was par for the course, although the 23-year-old from Hamm has had his moments. The highlight of his career came in Las Vegas in November 1997, when he defeated Andre Agassi in the American's home town to win an ATP Tour Challenger tournament, the type of event where aspiring young players cut their teeth and established players down on their luck recharge their batteries.

Agassi's decision to take a wild card for nickels on his doorstep while the top men in the game were disputing the ATP Tour Championship in Hanover was not in keeping with his neon image. It was akin to vacating a roulette table at Caesars Palace and trying to build a stake from a slot machine in a corner cafe.

The fact was that Agassi's ranking was down to No 141, the lowest point since the former world No 1 was a beginner in 1986 and he had to halt the slide somewhere. Since losing to Vink in the final of the Las Vegas Challenger, Agassi has re-established himself in the top 10.

Their paths did not cross yesterday. While Vink was packing his bags in Melbourne after another frustrating day trying to break into the main draw of a major event, Agassi was limbering up in the Colonial Classic exhibition event at Kooyong before heading for Melbourne Park, where he is seeded No 5 for the Australian Open, which starts on Monday.

"I have the photo of me holding the trophy [in Las Vegas], with him next to me," Vink said. "I played pretty well. It was a tough decision [for Agassi to play a Challenger], and I really admire him. Maybe it gave him a bit of confidence [for the season ahead]. He was really relaxed. It wasn't like I beat him in the first round.

"It was a great experience to play him, but because I beat him then it doesn't mean I think I can judge him. I am not on his level. It is a great effort for him to be in the Australian Open, seeded five."

Vink's comments may hearten Agassi and his entourage, because rumour has it that the former Wimbledon champion has spent the past 14 months defying gravity, rising from No 141 to as high as No 4 without leaving an imprint on the major championships.

The current rankings system allows players to discard all but their best 14 results over a rolling 12-month period, softening the effect of disappointing performances in the four Grand Slam tournaments and the ATP Tour's elite Super 9 events.

None of those tournaments were among the five titles Agassi won last year, and events this season may determine whether the sport's most exciting player still has what it takes to win a big one.

Agassi's experience, plus his expertise on rubberised concrete courts, placed him among the favourites to start the year with success in Australia even before his compatriot Pete Sampras, the world No 1, pulled out with battle fatigue, and Marcelo Rios, the No 2, arrived from Chile with back and leg injuries. At the same time, Agassi, who will be 29 in April, will be under pressure from younger contenders with more to prove.

What promises to be a fascinating tournament may present a wonderful opportunity for Tim Henman or Greg Rusedski to mark Britain's return to Grand Slam singles triumph for the first time since Fred Perry's reign in the 1930s.

At least two Spaniards, Alex Corretja, the ATP Tour Champion, and Carlos Moya, the French Open champion, who was runner-up to Sampras at the 1997 Australian Open, may be in the frame. Queensland's Pat Rafter has the ability to add to his consecutive US Open titles if he pretends Melbourne is New York. Likewise Mark Philippoussis, runner-up to Rafter at the US Open.

Set among those, Agassi, the convention-defying free spirit of yesteryear, cuts the figure of an elder statement in baggy pants.

He has not won a Grand Slam championship since his first visit to Melbourne in 1995, an occasion best remembered for Sampras's emotional match against Jim Courier in the quarter-finals after Sampras's coach, the late Tim Gullikson, had been taken ill. While nobody questioned Agassi's right to the title, there was a good deal of sympathy for Sampras, who was almost too drained to climb the steps for presentation after the final.

That was Agassi's third Grand Slam title (he needs the French Open to complete his set), and his supporters will be hoping that last year's trudge through the majors was merely the groundwork for better things to come.

"The great tournaments have been disappointing," he said. "I've worked really hard and had to grind week after week to get myself in position, and then struggled when I got in position."

In Australia, Agassi lost to Alberto Berasategui in five sets in the fourth round. At the French, he sampled the talent of Russia's Marat Safin, losing in four sets in the first round. At Wimbledon, he was beaten by a bright young German, Tommy Haas, in four sets in the second round. And at the US Open, he lost to Karol Kucera in five sets in the fourth round after mimicking the Slovakian's nervous habit of catching the ball after tossing to serve.

For his latest impersonation, Agassi might try the cocky, pigeon-toed American who used to return the mightiest serves and dazzle his opponents with the pace, depth and angles of his attacking groundstrokes.

It is worth noting that after Sampras, Agassi has the best record among active players for the first three months of a season, winning 335 of 441 matches from January to March since 1990.

He opens the new campaign in optimistic mood. "Now I've earned myself the luxury of being able to prepare for the big ones and, hopefully, have a better result," he says. "I want to win the Grand Slams. I'd like to start off by winning the Australian Open. Drawn in the same half as Rios, Agassi needs to concentrate on another South American, Hernan Gumy, his first round opponent from Argentina, ranked No 110. Otherwise he might disappear before you can say Vink.