Tennis: Wimbledon - Agassi back chasing the dream

THOUSANDS OF young women in Britain had a bad time yesterday. How could they explain to younger sisters that the balding, portly figure on the television set is the same person whose poster used to adorn the bedroom wall? "He was gorgeous once." Pause. "Honest."

Time has not been kind to Andre Agassi - but when he gets to snuggle up with Brooke Shields every night why should he care? The long locks that once embellished teenage dreams have been replaced by a close crop, while the cropped shirts that once rose to show his stomach are now tents to hide the same. Thank goodness Wimbledon did not see him when he was really bad.

Agassi, even in his current state, is an improvement on the man who was crawling in the equivalent of tennis's gutter not so long ago. At 141 and falling he had a world rank of a pre-Tim Henman British tennis player and a future that seemed to be more grand anti-climax then Grand Slams. But as a number of the American's early-Nineties adorers were no doubt pointing out yesterday, appearances can be deceptive.

Yesterday's man took a long look in a mirror last November, began pumping iron and has had such a renaissance he has arrived at Wimbledon as the 13th seed. A lucky 13th, too, if he gets the same sort of "which way would you like me to lose this point" type of opposition that Alex Calatrava provided him with yesterday. Agassi's barber gave him a far closer shave than anything the Spaniard threw at him.

Calatrava had played in only two Grand Slam tournaments before, losing in the first round of both the Australian and French Open and, if nothing else, yesterday's 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 defeat proved that he is consistent: poor on every surface be it hard court, clay or grass. His performance made you wonder how on earth he has risen to 83rd in the world.

Certainly he had Agassi at a a loss as to how he could possibly lose. The 1992 champion also went out of the French Open at the first stage and has been nursing a shoulder injury, so he was rusty to say the least. Yet the opposition was so limp he was 4-0 up in a flurry of forehands and had the first set won in 23 minutes.

Even the umpire seemed concerned: "Can you get the men's trainer?" he shouted to a colleague in the stand.

Calatrava seemed fine, give or take his fatally wounded ground strokes that were haemorrhaging points at an alarming rate, and it was a surprise when a medical man came on to apply a small bandage to his left knee. A tennis coach was required far more urgently.

The whole thing could have been over in an hour but Agassi began to explore his repertoire. His ground strokes - a glorious burst of wrist-wrenching energy - were given an extra spin to see if he could drag the ball in from impossible heights while he varied his serve, going ever closer to the lines.

The crowning moment came when he did the unthinkable: volleying. Agassi thinks that the only time you should come to the net is when you shake the opponent's hand at the end but, what the hell, there was nothing coming at him that could hurt him, he might as well enjoy himself. And he did.

"I'm excited to be here," he said, which for a man who appeared thoroughly brassed off with tennis not so long ago is quite a transformation. "I'm here for the tournament and it feels good. Yes, I would say that we've gone full circle to six years ago."

Then he defied the fiercest serve in the world - Goran Ivanisevic's - and the theory that Wimbledon could not be won playing from the back of the court, to win his first Grand Slam. It is fondly recalled as the most recent classic men's final and Agassi was happy yesterday to indulge himself that a repeat is not entirely out of the question.

"The first week is crucial," he said. "Once you get in the second it doesn't play like grass any more. If you've got a good return grass helps, you can sneak some breaks every set. Yes I think it's possible.

"Physically I'm 100 per cent and I'm very confident out there. It's hard to tell a lot when you walk through your first round pretty handily but I know I'll get better. I'm right where I want to be."

As he left Court One yesterday, a job well done, Agassi took off his cap and bowed to the four sides of support. It was a hello rather than a gesture of farewell and one that seemed unlikely even six months ago. He might not be the stuff of teen fantasy any more, but he can still dream.

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