Tennis / Wimbledon '93: Agassi able to revel on return to limelight: Defending champion shrugs off tendinitis

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The Independent Online
HE was supposed to be overweight, overpaid, overrated and over here, but Andre Agassi walked on to the Centre Court at Wimbledon yesterday and confounded us with his dodgy right arm. Tendinitis overcame bronchitis in straight sets, the defending champion defeating Bernd Karbacher, 7-5, 6-4, 6-0.

The German was coughing by the end of the match after choking, in the tennis sense, when serving for the opening set. Even so, it would be churlish to detract too much from Agassi's performance considering that he dropped into the world's most prestigious tournament having played one competitive match in two and a half months.

There were two noticeable differences between the Agassi who triumphed last year and the one who saved himself the ignominy of losing his title on the opening day.

To compensate for wrist and elbow injuries, he used hardly any backswing with an improvised service action. And yet he delivered 10 aces; 'more,' he joked, 'than in the whole tournament last year'.

Also, the much photographed Agassi midriff was covered, his shirt tucked neatly into his shorts. Was this to hide the belly button, or the belly? The Las Vegan looked puzzled when questioned about his weight.

'Really? I haven't noticed,' he said. 'I think I just had a big breakfast. I certainly feel like I'm moving well, so that's what I base it on. I don't stick to any weight on the scale, because I don't feel weight has been a problem for me. I base that decision on how well I am moving on the court.'

The American eighth seed began to dance a light fantastic after recovering from an ominous start. He was perturbed when the umpire overruled a line call to give his opponent a break point, to the extent of double-faulting for 1-3. Karbacher held his advantage, and served for the set at 5-3.

These are moments that separate winners from also-rans. The nervous German, who is ranked No 35 in the world, slipped after hitting a second serve on the first point, and Agassi passed him with a backhand return. Karbacher then double-faulted.

Agassi became too ambitious on the next point, driving a backhand return into the net, and Karbacher made it 30-30 with a service winner. But the damage to the German's confidence had already been achieved, and Agassi deceived him with two returns that left him floundering with the ball at his feet.

'He hit a few good shots, and then I was under pressure,' Karbacher said. 'It's the first time you play in such a stadium, or on Centre Court, and you have the chance to beat someone like Agassi, and then you start thinking a little bit, maybe. Then you make a double fault, and you think too much, and then it's over. It's over fast.' In 92 minutes to be precise.

Agassi did not, after all, perform like Manuel Santana, who in 1967 became the only defending champion to lose in the first round. On the other hand, after the opening set some of Karbacher's serves were reminiscent of the Manuel of Fawlty Towers.

There were mitigating circumstances. While Agassi's ailments have merited almost daily bulletins, Karbacher's bronchial tubes have been mentioned as an afterthought. 'It was not too good, to be honest,' he said. 'At the end of the match it was a big problem, because I got tired. Everything is much harder when you cannot breathe well.'

Agassi was as delighted with his progress as were the spectators. 'I wanted to be as ready as I could be to give it my best shot,' he said, 'and I came out here today and it was the second best feeling of my life, of my career. The first one was winning it.'

He admitted that the spectre of Santana had visited him on the practice courts. 'You can't stop crazy thoughts like that from entering your mind,' he said. 'To say whether they stick around is a different story. It's not a problem to come out here and defend the Wimbledon title. It's an honour.

'As of a few weeks ago, I didn't even think I would be able to make it. That thought is a lot harder for me to deal with than come here, step on the court and get beat. So to me it was all positive, just being here and being able to to experience this again, and hopefully get through a few (matches), where I feel my game can kick in and give myself a lot of shots.'

Does he believe he can win again? 'That's what I'm here for. I think the first few (matches) are the most crucial for me. When you get to the second week of Wimbledon, the ball slows up and the bounces start bouncing higher. I mean, it did last year, so I think yes, I can.'

Though Moses, in the guise of Charlton Heston, was impressed, a successful defence of the title is not cast in stone. Ladbrokes have not flinched from odds of 20-1, and Michael Stich, who failed to hang on to the championship a year ago, also remains unconvinced about Agassi's prospects.

'He played a guy who had a virus for a few weeks,' Stich reminded us. 'I don't think that was a real test for him regarding his form. But it's always great to win your opening match as defending champion on Centre Court. I think it's going to give him rather a boost regarding the next match.' That will be against Ross Matheson, a wild card from Scotland, provided he overcomes Portugal's Joao Cunha-Silva.

Stich, whose left thigh was bandaged to protect a strained muscle, advanced to the second round with a 6-2, 7-6, 6-1 win against Jan Siemerink. The German received a code violation during the third set for taking too much time being treated for the injury, but by then the sixth seed was in sight of victory against the Dutch left-hander.

Stefan Edberg, the second seed, had a more difficult time on Court Two against a Canadian left-hander, Greg Rusedski, whose form had been toughened by toiling though the pre-qualifying tournament. The Swede won, 7-6, 6-4, 6-7, 7-6, and could have experienced more serious problems had his opponent not blown his chances in the first-set tie-break.

Having taken a 5-1 lead, Rusedski was dragged back to 5-5. He then created a set point at 6-5, only for Edberg to hit a service winner. The Swede then double-faulted, and was relieved when his opponent did the same on two more set points. Edberg came through, 11-9.

'In the first tie-break there were a lot of nerves on both sides,' Edberg said, 'then in the last tie-break he made an easy mistake at 5-4 and gave me the two match points. That's sometimes the difference, A point here and there where maybe a little more experience will help.'

Rusedski is 19, ranked No 155, has an English mother, a German father, Polish-Ukrainian grandparents and carries a British passport. Interesting.

Lendl survives, Order of play, page 33

(Photograph omitted)