TENNIS: control could be the key for Agassi

TENNIS: New-look US Open champion must let his talent do the talking. J ohn Roberts reports from Melbourne `Being No 1 isn't really a goal... It is a by-product of how you are improving'
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If Andre Agassi is not careful when making his debut at the Australian Open, which starts here on Monday, he may discover that his penal colony haircut is more apposite than he imagined.

The Las Vegan, like John McEnroe before him, has a tendency to exercise greater control over his shots than his tongue. It was at Flinders Park, Melbourne, five years ago, remember, that McEnroe was finally disqualified after swearing once too often.

Agassi's importance to the sport is immense. Ominously, while raising his performance last season in winning the United States Open and climbing to No 2 in the world behind Pete Sampras, the showman also indulged in games of dare with umpires.

"Why didn't you default me after the third `fuck'" television viewers heard Agassi inquire of Mike Morrisey, a British official, after being penalised a point for two audible obscenities during his quarter-final against Sweden's Magnus Larsson in the Grand Slam Cup in Munich last month. He also narrowly missed Morrisey's head with a return of serve.

A few weeks earlier, while playing against Sampras in the semi-finals of the ATP Tour Championship in Frankfurt, Agassi was warned for an audible obscenity and then penalised a point for hitting a ball close to a linesman. The tantrum ensued after the German umpire, Rudi Berger, had overruled a call on a far line.

Rome and Paris also became aware of Agassi's penchant for the F-word. Romano Gillotti admitted to hearing three of four expletives uttered by Agassi during a match at the Italian Open, but did not consider them loud enough to cause offence.

Agassi expressed an interesting view on that occasion - "I think as far as which words you use, you have a little more freedom in a country where it is not your natural language" - while overlooking that only taxi is as universally understood as the four-letter word he uses.

Penalised a point during the French Open, Agassi said to Bruno Rebeuh, an official from Nice: "The word I used was faggot. Not one other umpire regards that as obscene."

It puzzles Agassi why umpires are there at all. "This is the only sport where the umpire is not actually part of the game," he contends. "Every other sport, the umpire is making the calls. This guy just sits up there. He keeps score. Twice a match, he over-rules, and he calls `not ups' when the ball bounces twice, and occasionally a let. I mean, it is tough to respect somebody who is not part of the game."

Respected or not, an umpire can order players off the court for misbehaving. "Yeah, he can, but fortunately he has to discuss it with the supervisor, and in most cases the supervisor has more sense. I'd like to see the umpires be a part of the game. Get them down on the lines, moving around, calling some balls themselves."

While acknowledging that players are responsible for their conduct - "I wish I could control myself better all the time" - Agassi argues that obscenities are part of "the reality" of intense competition.

Umpires, he complains, study players' faces, waiting for obscenities, chiefly because the court is booby-trapped with television microphones. "I just absolutely think that they need to remove the microphones, or certainly [reduce] the sensitivity of them, and relax a little bit."

Goran Ivanisevic would agree. The Croat, who imagined he was swearing to himself in his own language while pacing a baseline at Flinders Park, was fined after a viewer made a complaint and an interpreter reviewed the tape.

The reality is that television helps make multi-millionaires of players and therefore calls the tune.

No amplification was necessary when McEnroe directed an obscenity towards Ken Farrar, the Grand Slam supervisor, who was only yards away from him on the Centre Court here in 1990. That proved to be the parting shot of McEnroe's fourth-round match againstMikael Pernfors, of Sweden.

It is a pity that Agassi's first appearance at the tournament should be prefaced with foreboding, because he undoubtedly has the talent and the personality to enrich Australia's summer pageant.

First impressions suggest he is bigger than ever, though this has as much to do with his waistline as his ranking. He certainly seems to have made the most of R & R between competitive action in Munich and Melbourne.

Still, there was a time when the Australian Open barely entered Agassi's mind, let alone his diary. He preferred to devote the opening weeks of the year to training at home, just as in June he would skip Wimbledon in order to recharge his batteries between the end of the European clay-court season and the start of the American hard-court campaign.

Though the 1992 triumph at Wimbledon concentrated his mind on the four Grand Slam championships, he never quite made it to the Australian Open. "Every 7 January I got sick," he can joke now. Two years ago, it was bronchitis. A year ago he was recovering from surgery, which rid him of tendinitis in the right wrist.

This is not Agassi's first visit Down Under. He was in Melbourne as an 11-year-old, has twice played in Sydney's indoor championships, and has even made an appearance at Flinders Park, exchanging shots with McEnroe in an exhibition match in October, 1992. "I enjoyed it," he said. "I feel like I have gotten warm receptions. I am looking forward to the Grand Slam here."

Agassi describes his forthcoming participation in the championships as symbolic." It reflects a change in a certain level of commitment - it was always difficult for me to leave home the day after New Year's."

Brad Gilbert, Agassi's coach since March last year, can take much of the credit for the new sense of direction. The Australian Open became a significant goal the moment Agassi triumphed at the US Open. ``Brad wouldn't have it any other way," he said.

When Agassi and McEnroe put on their show at Flinders Park, the retractable Centre Court roof of the National Tennis was closed, making the arena seem like New York's Madison Square Garden.

Gilbert, who competed outdoors on the rubberised concrete Rebound Ace courts here in 1991 and '92, has reassured Agassi that he will feel completely at home hitting his shots in the sunshine." Brad tells me the surface will be more suitable for me than any other."

In preparation, they have even hired a private aircraft to commute between an exhibition tournament in Adelaide and Melbourne so that Agassi can get accustomed to the Flinders Park courts. While working on several aspects of Agassi's game, movement has taken priority- and not before time judging by by his shape after Christmas.

"I am so used to controlling most of the points that a lot of times I am a little more lackadaisical in my movement than I care to be," Agassi says." I've focused on that, and on a few other strategic parts of my game that I don't really care to mention.But you will hopefully see it.

"I'd like to win Australia and I'd like to win the French. I have never done that. Being No 1 isn't really a goal. In my opinion, it is a by-product of how you are improving on your game. So we start with Australia, and hopefully we can get this one under our belt this year. It's my first time playing here, so I am excited to see how I respond to it."

It is rather late to advise Agassi to keep his hair on, except in the metaphorical sense. If he plays and behaves as well as he did in New York last September, the Aussies will adore him.