Tennis: Revival of the great showman

Chris Bowers in Melbourne hopes that Andre Agassi's return is for good; 'I had to do something. If you plan your work and work your plan it can only get better'
Click to follow
ANDRE AGASSI is seldom out of the headlines, and this week in Melbourne has been no exception. The 27-year-old American, the Australian Open champion on his first visit Down Under in 1995, stirred up the locals with his claim that the courts at the National Tennis Centre had been speeded up to assist the attacking games of Australia's leading hopes, Patrick Rafter and Mark Philippoussis.

"Unless I'm crazy, and I might be, the courts at Flinders Park are 38 per cent quicker than those here," he said, "here" being the Colonial Classic, a high-powered exhibition tournament held at the Australian Open's former home, Kooyong, where Agassi was warming up for the first Grand Slam event of the year, which starts tomorrow.

The precise percentage figure contained in Agassi's remark caused one Melbourne cartoonist to depict a tennis fan wondering whether the American tennis star was 100 per cent with it. But in truth there seems little crazy about the 1998 version of Andre Agassi. In fact, the more he plays, the more his latest comeback seems a realistic revival of an exciting career rather than a sad attempt to rediscover former glories. While he is making no predictions for his progress, he believes that - given a slice or two of luck - he could be lifting the trophy a fortnight today, as an unseeded player.

For a start, the world's most sought-after tennis player does not regard it as a comeback. "My career has been so up and down," he said, "it's wrong to see me as someone who rose gradually to a pinnacle, fell from it, and is trying to return.

"I've been able to sustain great consistency and I got to No 1 on quite a short burst of great form, so it's wrong to write me off just because I've slipped down the rankings. When I play my best I'm really just allowing myself to feel it and go with it, and that makes my level of play unpredictable."

Agassi, the 1992 Wimbledon champion whose US Open title in 1994 and sole Australian crown helped him become the world's best player for much of 1995, had a dismal 1997. In the first six months he won just 6 of 12 matches, missed the Australian and French Opens as well as Wimbledon, and the only highlight was his marriage to the actress Brooke Shields.

"My lowest point came at the start of the summer," he said. "I realised I had to do something, and I worked out a plan. It involves a solid two hours a day in the gym, 30 minutes intense cardio and one and a half to two hours on-court tennis.

"That was my commitment, and I've stuck to it. I came down from 183lb (13st 1lb) to 161lb (11st 7lb), which was a bit too low, though I'm up a bit. If you plan your work and work your plan it can only get better."

But it did not get better immediately. A mixed summer season on America's hard courts ended with a fourth-round defeat at the US Open by the eventual champion, Rafter, and by the end of the year Agassi's ranking had dropped into three figures, forcing him into the indignity of playing a Challenger tournament (an event one level down from the full tour) for the first time in 11 years.

Despite failing to win that event - meaning no titles during the year for the first time since 1986 and a year-ending balance sheet of just 12 wins in 24 matches - he had turned the corner. He reached the semi- finals of last week's event in Adelaide, and last week at Kooyong he defeated Thomas Muster and Goran Ivanisevic in the Melbourne tournament, losing only to Philippoussis in the final. "He's a dangerous floater in the Open by being unseeded, and I certainly wouldn't want him in my part of the draw," said Philippoussis.

For all that, Agassi does not yet look back to his all-conquering best of 1994-95. The lethal ground strokes which seemed to hit lines and corners with unerring accuracy are still not precise enough, and there are too many errors on the big points, a classic sign of lack of match play.

But the keenness is back again. "I know why I'm out there," he said, and there is a ring of truth about the remark. "I'd be lying if I tried to deny that fear of not being able to do it is driving me. That fear always mounts when you begin to doubt yourself, but my focus isn't straying."

Perhaps of more than symbolic significance for a man whose on-court clothing has often seemed as important as his tennis, he is wearing an unfussy outfit of plain white shirt, black shorts, white socks and white shoes. Image may no longer be everything.

"I have no intention of making predictions," he said when asked about his form. "It may take a while. I may crack it here at the Australian, or it may take me another few months, but it's a question of taking one step at a time and having belief in my preparation."

So far, the latest Agassi revival appears genuine enough, and while the American may not yet be back to being a world beater, his present ranking of 87 looks deceptively low.

Slam chance or slim chance?

Venus Williams

THE attention will fall on her kid sister Serena making her Grand Slam debut, but form favours Venus. The 17-year-old's last Slam saw her reach the US Open final and she was just getting into the match when Martina Hingis finished her off. This past week she has reached the final in Sydney, beating Hingis on the way. The key to that victory was in dealing better with the heat, and with yesterday's temperature in Melbourne 42C, that could be a vital attribute. She admits that Serena could ultimately prove a better player, but that's probably just a way of taking pressure off herself in readiness for their likely second- round clash at the Open, the first time the sisters will have played on the women's tour.

Anna Kournikova

THERE are so many potentially brilliant teenage female players that you overlook any of them at your peril. The stunning-looking 16- year-old Russian is not used to being overlooked, so expect her to answer the greater publicity afforded recently to the Williams sisters, Martina Hingis and Mirjana Lucic with some storming performances in Melbourne. And she should have a great stage for an upset with a likely third-round match against Hingis, who beat her in last year's Wimbledon semi-finals. With all the attention she gets for her looks, some might question her on-court motivation, but it has always looked rock solid, and the danger of her career petering out, a la Gabriela Sabatini, seems remote.

Lleyton Hewitt

THE 16-year-old schoolboy from Adelaide has long ranked as one of Australia's most promising juniors, but his stunning victory in his home town tournament last week suggests this is more than local hype. Semi-final win over Andre Agassi was significant, his defeat of world No 4 Jonas Bjorkman in Sydney this week even more so. Typical of a resurgence in the self-confidence of Australian tennis, his presence will take some of the weight of expectation off the Aussies' top hopes Patrick Rafter and Mark Philippoussis. Played Open last year as 15-year-old, losing to Sergi Bruguera in first round. Asked if he was unhappy to have faced Bruguera, he said: "I wanted Sampras." Now drawn against Daniel Vacek, with Bruguera looming in second round.

Dominik Hrbaty

THE 20-year-old happy-go-lucky Slovak who seems to be missing a vowel (the emphasis is on the "ba") came close to a massive upset in last year's fourth round when he led Pete Sampras 4-2 in the final set in 40- degree heat and had two break points for 5-2 before succumbing at the thought of his impending achievement. That created expectations for him which he hasn't quite lived up to, but he used last year as a consolidating period, and now back on territory where he has good memories, he could do serious damage this year. Ranked 39, he opens against the inconsistent Australian Scott Draper, and if he wins that, should hit the sixth seed Petr Korda, playing his last Australian Open, in the second.