Tennis: Critical point for ailing Agassi

John Roberts reports from New York on the fall of the former world No 1 who hopes to rediscover his touch at the US Open, which starts on Monday
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The Independent Online
The actress Tallulah Bankhead apparently became so anxious watching Bill Tilden lose to Rene Lacoste in the 1928 Wimbledon semi-finals that she ate the rose from her lapel. Entire gardens might be under threat from Brooke Shields.

You may remember Ms Shields' husband, Andre Agassi. Their wedding in California in April was his biggest match of the season.

There were rumours that Agassi was on the point of retiring, which proved premature. He had given the Australian Open a miss, explaining that he needed to rest, and was absent from the French Open and Wimbledon because of a tendon injury to his right wrist.

On returning to the court after 10 weeks, the Las Vegan's performances suggested disorientation, his opening round defeats for the year extending to seven as he strove for a semblance of form ahead of the United States Open, which starts on Monday here.

Officials of the United States Tennis Association trust that the unseeded Agassi will at least put in an appearance. They have already lost Steffi Graf and Boris Becker from the cast list and Monica Seles' challenge may be debilitated by a flu virus.

The organisers are awaiting confirmation that the mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, will accept an invitation to make a speech to inaugurate the Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday night. Giuliani has been critical of a contract signed by his tennis-loving predecessor, David Dinkins, restricting flights over Flushing Meadows from La Guardia Airport during the tournament.

While Mayor Giuliani's support would be useful, the need for a revitalised Agassi is pressing. A world ranking of No 59 might be a fair assessment of where Agassi's tennis stands, but as a personality he is still No 1, partly because of a dearth of challengers in that department.

Aged 27, Agassi bloomed late and wilted early in terms of Grand Slam titles, winning Wimbledon in 1992, the US Open in 1994 and the Australian Open in 1995. His 11 years on the circuit, however, have been a triumph of marketing for the player and his clothing sponsor, Nike.

Reportedly worth pounds 75m, Agassi has earned pounds 8.5m in official prize-money. A contract with Nike agreed in 1995 was reputedly for $100m (pounds 65m) over 10 years.

It seems doubtful that he would continue playing without the thrill of success. Clauses in contracts? Agassi has been Santa Claus for his sponsors. How many male athletes have created so much interest and speculation about what they wore? In the cause of commerce, Agassi has gone through a garish gamut of "hot lava", "hot lime", "grunge" (complete with black socks and shoes), bad hair days and shaven-headed days.

Phillip Agassi, brother and business adviser, has been quoted as saying, "Andre's great-great-grandchildren won't have to worry about money. Andre has more money than he could spend. He wouldn't sign long-term contracts with those companies to play, and then quit the game. Andre is still in his prime. He has a good three to five years to return to the top 10. Who knows? It could be longer. He hasn't lost his lust for the game.''

But what about his form? Last month, responding to suggestions that marriage had changed his tennis priorities, Agassi said: "The people saying that are probably the same people saying Brooke was the reason I got to No 1.''

Perhaps. But aside from one or two Davis Cup performances and the dispensation of being allowed to curse his way to an Olympic gold medal in Atlanta last year, Agassi has hardly been recognisable as the same player since losing to Pete Sampras in the 1995 US Open final.

Agassi, the defending champion and No 1 in the world at the time, was defeated in four sets by Sampras, the world No 2. The outcome of one marathon rally might have changed the course of their respective careers.

Sampras had reached set point on Agassi's serve in the opening set. Agassi put the ball in play, Sampras hit a return, and the players became synchronized in a breathtaking duel of angled groundstrokes. On the 22nd stroke, Sampras outmanoeuvred Agassi with a forehand and delivered a backhand winner across the court.

It was an example, Agassi said, of Sampras's "explosiveness". It might also have been the moment when their rivalry was blown.

"That one point in that match was significant," Sampras said during a break in his preparations the other day, "because at that point Andre had won 25 straight matches, and he worked so hard to get to No 1 in the world. To come up short at the US Open, the most important tournament we have in the States, I'm sure was very tough to get over.

"He showed glimpses of his form there, but he hasn't been as consistent as I think he should be. So it's something maybe he hasn't quite rebounded from. It's something that I'm sure he's thought about and whatever. But I'm sure he's put it behind him. He's had a tough summer. I'm sure at the US Open time he'll be ready. His confidence might not quite be where it was a couple of years ago, but with a couple of matches under his belt he'll be tough to beat.''

We shall see. After losing recently to his compatriot Justin Gimelstob, Agassi said: "It will take a while to get that confidence back, to prove to myself I can beat these guys day in and day out again. It's just a grind. You've got to pay the price and do it. I certainly am committed to that challenge and I will do it."

John McEnroe was about to be 27 when he decided to take a seven-month sabbatical. He never quite reproduced his previous level of performance. The New Yorker interrupted his career for marriage to the actress Tatum O'Neal and fatherhood after losing in the first round of the Masters in January 1986.

That defeat, 6-1 in the third set, was by the Californian Brad Gilbert, who had won only one set in their seven previous matches. "When I start losing to the Brad Gilberts of this world," McEnroe said, "I've got to reconsider what I'm doing even playing this game.''

One wonders how many shots Gilbert, now Agassi's coach, puts past the Las Vegan on the practice court.

1997: A YEAR TO FORGET FOR THE FALLEN CHAMPION

San Jose

1st rd bt M Knowles (Bah) 6-4 4-6 6-2

2nd rd bt M Norman (Swe) 4-6 7-6 6-3

QF bt G Doyle (Aus) 6-2 6-1

SF lost to G Rusedski (GB) 6-3 6-4

Memphis

1st rd bye

2nd rd lost to G Kuerten (Br) 6-2 6-4

Scottsdale

1st rd lost to J Sanchez (Sp) 6-3 6-2

Indian Wells

Ist rd lost to M Philippoussis (Aus) 7-6 7-6

Lipton Championships

Ist rd bye

2nd rd lost to S Draper (Aus) 7-6 6-1

Davis Cup QF

USA v Netherlands

1st-day singles bt S Schalken 7-6 6-4 7-6

Last-day singles bt J Siemerink 3-6 3-6 6-3 6-3 6-3

Atlanta

1st rd bt J Oncins (Br) 6-3 6-2

2nd rd lost to M Norman (Swe) 7-6 3-6 6-3

Washington

1st rd bye

2nd rd lost to D Flach (US) 2-6 6-4 6-4

Los Angeles

1st rd lost to J Gimelstob (US) 7-5 6-2

Cincinnati

1st rd lost to G Kuerten (Br) 6-3 6-1

Indianapolis

1st rd bt D Sanguinetti (It) 6-2 4-6 6-4

2nd rd bt O Delaitre (Fr) 7-6 6-1

3rd rd bt A Corretja (Sp) 7-5 6-1

QF lost to M Woodforde (Aus) 6-3 5-7 6-3

1997 record: Pl 19 W 9 L 10

Current world ranking: No 59

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