Tennis: Wimbledon 99 - Agassi enters realm of possibility

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ANDRE AGASSI arrived at Wimbledon this week still aglow from his historic triumph in the French Open, a victory that elevated him to membership of the very small group of men who have won all four Grand Slam singles titles. Only Fred Perry, Don Budge, Rod Laver and Roy Emerson had done it before him, and not one of them won the four titles on three different surfaces, as Agassi has.

"I still feel pretty overwhelmed by what happened in Paris," he said yesterday, after beginning his Wimbledon campaign with a straightforward 6-1, 6-2, 6-3 win over Andrei Pavel, the Romanian No 1. "By the same token I also had this tournament right in front of me, which hasn't quite allowed me the luxury to reflect on it."

He had certainly not expected it. "It came a decade later than it could have happened," he remarked, "at a time when it was hard even for myself to believe that it was possible. I can say I don't think I've ever felt that way on a court, and nor will I ever again feel that amount of pressure going in and also that amount of emotion after. It was by far the greatest moment for me, because it encompassed so many things."

Yet it had not really been possible to enjoy the victory as it happened. "You have to remember that to give yourself the best shot you get into such a focused perspective that you're literally fighting for every point of every match. You're not even allowing yourself the luxury of thinking about the accomplishment as it's happening, because you don't want to distract yourself from the job at hand. So it wasn't really until it was all over that I stopped and to some degree marvelled at what it is that I did. Because I surprised myself. I didn't think I could really do it."

He took a couple of days off, and then resumed a comparatively relaxed training schedule for Wimbledon. After avoiding the tournament during the early years of his career, his record at the All England Club has been extraordinarily mixed - champion in 1992, semi-finalist in 1995, quarter-finalist in 1991 and 1993, second-round exit in 1998, first-round dismissals in 1997 and 1996. But whatever the result, his presence has invariably raised the emotional temperature of the occasion.

In 1992 he beat two three-time champions, Boris Becker and John McEnroe, en route to the win over Goran Ivanisevic which gave him his first Grand Slam title on what had seemed the surface least likely to suit his baseline style. And in 1995, the year he spent 30 consecutive weeks at No 1, he was playing tennis of sublime quality - taking the ball impossibly early, hitting it back impossibly hard - until he met Boris Becker in the semi- final, when he found himself a set and a service break up but then suddenly and inexplicably went into reverse.

In Paris two weeks ago, when Agassi won his first Grand Slam title for four years, there was much discussion over the fact that the return of his winning touch followed the break-up of his 1997 marriage to the actress Brooke Shields. On the Centre Court yesterday it was to his long-time coach, Brad Gilbert, that he looked for encouragement.

Not that he was in any great need. Pavel, a big-boned, long-haired baseliner who reached the final of a grass-court tournament in the Netherlands last Sunday, did his best to take on the man from Las Vegas at his own game. Time and again, however, he found himself stranded by the delicacy of Agassi's touch, the accuracy of his passes, his ability to step in and return a 115mph serve with interest and, late in the final set, a running topspin lob which transfixed both the Romanian and the crowd as it flew in a low arc and plopped on to the turf as soft as a marshmallow.

His sartorial mode this year seems to be consciously conservative. His clothes are white, but not the in-your-face whiter-than-white that Nike devised for him a few years ago. Yesterday he looked, give or take the odd dangling earring, conventional enough to pass for a suburban club player. The post-match salute to all four corners of the court was that of a man apparently at ease with himself.

Seeded fourth this year, Agassi is drawn to meet another former champion, Richard Krajicek, in the quarter-final. If he were to go all the way he might just find himself in the meeting with Pete Sampras that Becker denied him - and us - four years ago. And then he could entertain another impossible dream.

"I don't know what it's like to be a two-time champion anywhere," he said yesterday, when asked if he had any goals left in tennis. "So, yes, I would like to win some more."

n Andre Agassi is rated at 7-1 to win the singles title by bookmakers William Hill, the same odds as Tim Henman. Pete Sampras is 5-4 favourite while Richard Krajicek and Patrick Rafter are 15-2. Greg Rusedski is 12- 1.