Tennis day one: Norman Fox sees the world of Agassi and Nike in an unlikely setting

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The Independent Online
The taking part more important than the winning? As John McEnroe famously remarked: "You cannot be serious."

The Olympic tennis tournament got under way yesterday and Andre Agassi is in no doubt where his priorities lie. "I always wanted to compete in the Olympics," he said. "This is as big as any grand slam tournament, except I don't get paid."

Not much anyway. Agassi's Nike contract is a moveable feast which keeps adding to his $150m fortune, no matter how badly he plays.

While Agassi may not have entered into the spirit of things by staying in the Olympic village - a luxury hotel is more his style - others from the multi-million dollar world of tennis have taken a different attitude.

Monica Seles is "slumming" it in the village and loving every minute of it. She said: "I've been getting excited about being here for almost two years. I wanted to stay in the village to get the full Olympic experience."

As she was talking, other competitors were taking her picture. She promptly found her own camera and took pictures of them. She has holed up with Lindsay Davenport and Chanda Rubin, and two members of the American water polo team.

"I'd never met them until the opening ceremony," she said. "You just get talking to everyone here. After the ceremony the three of us went out into the town and sat drinking coffee until 3am"

Agassi said that one of the main reasons he wanted to compete in the Games was because his father, Mike, boxed for Iran in the Olympics of 1948 and 1952. "He's prouder of me for coming here than any other thing I've done so far," Agassi said.

He staunchly defends the right of tennis to be an Olympic sport. "There's plenty of people here who are real amateurs, but look at the Dream Team - look at the top athletes. Everything has changed." Even so, letting millionaires into the Games has still driven the whole Olympic ethic way beyond the baseline.

Tennis, however, could be said to have more of an historical right to be in the Games than, say, beach volleyball or mountain biking. After all, it was in the 1896 Olympics in Athens, though hardly seriously: a passing British tourist, John Pius Boland, heard about it by chance and entered. He won the gold medal.

Tennis came back into the Olympic movement only eight years ago with massive criticism about its ultra-professionalism. The argument might have rung true 30 years before, but not after several decades of phoney amateurism, particularly in athletics.

The IOC welcomed tennis for commercial reasons and were delighted when Goran Ivanisevic and Stefan Edberg were their country's flag bearers in Barcelona. Whether the Olympics has sold its soul is of little interest to Agassi, but with a number of the big names having pulled out before the Games had begun, he has found himself a comparatively lonely flag- bearer for his sport here.

Henman wins, page 3

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