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Tennis: Old star reborn with grand desire

THE PLAYER himself could not quite believe how brilliantly he had performed; 6-0 6-0 in 34 minutes. He used the phrases "pretty well", "really well" and "extremely well" all in the same sentence to sum up that performance.

Welcome to the latest instalment of one of the great roller-coaster rides in sport, the ups and downs of Andre Agassi. At the start of 1997 Agassi was ranked eighth in the world. Nine months later, in a free-fall to rival that of the Russian rouble, he had plummeted to 141. Now, a year on, he is back up to eighth and intent on clinching a berth in the eight-man field at the season's-end ATP World Championships in Hanover next month.

To that end Agassi has embarked on a whistle-stop tour of the autumn indoor tournaments of Europe, starting here at the Compaq Grand Slam Cup, where he is appearing courtesy of a wild card and where the extravagant rewards on offer will certainly fund the travelling costs of himself and his coach, Brad Gilbert, as they journey on to Basle, Ostrava, Stuttgart, Paris and, with enough points in the bag from that little lot, Hanover.

Qualification for the World Championships would provide indisputable proof that Agassi is back - again. The chances are strong that he will do it. He has played only one other indoor event so far this year, at San Jose, California, in February and won it (one of his four titles in this comeback year) by beating Pete Sampras for the loss of six games.

Like Boris Becker, Agassi prefers to play his tennis in arenas where elements like sun and wind are not a factor. "You're dealing with a very clean look at the ball, so you can get a clean hit," he said in the afterglow of that astonishing annihilation of Cedric Pioline. "Any time I can do that, then I can press on each shot. In San Jose, under those conditions, I hit the ball phenomenal. No elements, so I just told myself, execute, execute." So chuffed was Agassi about the manner of the execution job on Pioline in Munich that he went off that night with Becker and Gilbert for a spot of jollity at the city's annual knees-up, Oktoberfest.

By his own reckoning, Agassi is much further forward on the roller-coaster upswing than he expected to be when, in November last year, he was reduced to playing in a Challenger event in his home town, Las Vegas, to try to get his ranking on the move. It had been a year of joy, with marriage to Brooke Shields in April, and despair, with a playing record of won 12 lost 12, ballooning weight and sinking ranking. That the strain was taking its toll was clear when, in that piffling little Las Vegas tournament, he was fined for swearing at the umpire over a line call. And he didn't even win the title. That was Agassi's lowest point.

In the bid to turn it round, Agassi has been grateful for the support of his wife, the friendship of Nelson Mandela on a close-season visit to South Africa and the inspiration he found in the writings of Pope John Paul II.

But ultimately Agassi himself provided the glue that held it all together. "It got to the point where I no longer believed I was capable of going out there and playing great tennis," he said as we sat in a quiet corner of the tournament director's office in Munich's Olympiahalle. "I had my doubts, no question about it, and that kind of thinking can have a snowball effect. You stop winning, start losing and respond by not working as hard as you should.

"But those doubts made me work harder, play harder, and as a result, straight-out assessment, I am much better off than I thought I would be at this stage."

Agassi kick-started the 1998 season with a semi-final at Adelaide, a fourth-round place at the Australian Open, successive victories in San Jose and Scottsdale and runner-up spot at Key Biscayne. But the French Open and Wimbledon were a serious setback. In his first-round match at Roland Garros, Agassi damaged his shoulder towards the end of the first set against Marat Safin and went out in five sets.

"So because of the shoulder I didn't play for three weeks and all of a sudden I was on grass at Wimbledon, needing to make shots, and I wasn't prepared." After a second-round loss in four sets to Tommy Haas, Agassi mused: "Right now I feel I have a lot more to do with some of these defeats than my opponents. I've been through this many times in my career, I know this road well. Yet I'm not even close to thinking about quitting."

Any queries about motivation were swept away on the North American hard- court segment of the season when Agassi won successive tournaments in Washington and Los Angeles and came close to making it three in a row. He won two three-setters in a day against Goran Ivanisevic and Sampras before losing a tight contest to Richard Krajicek - "after I had him in a load of trouble".

There was again Grand Slam disappointment, however, at the US Open where, just as in Melbourne, he lost a fourth-round match in five sets. "But at the Australian Open it was early in my comeback and I got tired because I hadn't played five sets in close to two years. In New York I got 2-0 up in the fifth against Karol Kucera and instead of pulling the trigger to stick a possible 6-1 set on him I sort of hoped he would lose it from there. There is a huge difference between wanting somebody to lose it versus going out there to take it from them. That convinced me from now on to hit out on my shots and, if I see an opportunity, take it.

"Every tournament is important to me now because it is an opportunity to establish that I can play big in big situations. I want to go out in semis and finals and hit my shots in a way that lives up to my standard of play."

Gilbert, Agassi's coach for the last four and a half years, feels his man is on the verge of another rush of good results. "Andre should be playing his best tennis indoors and I feel he can win all these tournaments in Europe. The state of his game is still not quite where it should be but he is in the right frame of mind about where he wants to be and I would be surprised if it didn't happen. It doesn't matter any more what happened last year. You can only worry about what's coming up. I am hoping this will be a springboard for Australia '99."

Ah yes, Australia, where Agassi won the last of his three Grand Slams in January l995. Remember that, Andre? "Sure do, and Australia is what I am ultimately playing for over the next few weeks."