Tennis: Wimbledon 99 - Agassi finds answer to power of Arthurs

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The Independent Online
THE TROUBLE with being spoilt is that it is so hard to cope with not getting your own way, like when the sunshine disappears from an almost perfect Wimbledon Championships.

Alan Yentob's little joke about there being a clause concerning the weather in the BBC's new contract with the All England Club began to wear thin yesterday, as soon as the first serious droplets of the fortnight arrived.

Yentob, the BBC's director of television, was part of the Centre Court congregation at the time, sitting alongside Mick Jagger. Cue for: "Hey, you, get off of my cloud".

Thankfully, not everybody was caught in the limbo of rain delays. Andre Agassi, the No 4 seed, had already guaranteed his place in the men's singles quarter-finals for the first time since 1995. Returning mighty serves is Agassi's speciality, which is why he broke Goran Ivanisevic's heart in the 1992 final.

Ivanisevic is not the only Goliath of the courts to have been felled by Agassi's sling. It has happened to the best. But the 29-year-old from Las Vegas has rarely timed a return with more devastating effect than he did on No 1 Court at 4.20 pm yesterday to extinguish one of the lesser lights of the game.

Until then, the astonishing Wayne Arthurs, a 28-year-old qualifier from Melbourne, with a world ranking of 163, had not lost his serve since stepping into the first round of the qualifying draw at Roehampton to play Enzo Artoni, an optimist from Argentina.

Arthurs' potent left-handed serve successfully negotiated 19 sets and 111 games. Ah, yes, 111, "Nelson", the ominous three cricket stumps. Agassi could not be expected to know much about that, but, given the opportunity, he is capable of reading a serve with one eye closed. And Arthurs finally gave him that chance.

Beginning to tire from his exertions, which had including a five-set win against Germany's Tommy Haas, the No 14 seed, in the third round, Arthurs found it difficult to generate his usual power and accuracy at the start of the third set. He produced five aces to fend off Agassi in the opening game, saving three break points and battling through five deuces. But Agassi was ready to pounce on a second serve at 1-1, 30-40, driving a backhand return down the line, which, agonisingly for Arthurs, landed plumb on the line.

Once ahead, Agassi was ruthless, taking every other game in the third set and winning the match, 6-7, 7-6, 6-1, 6-4. He will meet Gustavo Kuerten, the Brazilian former French Open champion, on the clay of Paris, who is learning to play on the grass match by match.

Against Arthurs, Agassi resisted the temptation to lose his patience when confronted by a player who was rapidly becoming the king of the tie- breaks. "It's difficult to win if you can't break somebody," Agassi said. "His serve is so big, and he was serving so well for the first couple of sets.

"I think the turning point came in the first game of the third. He was serving at 0-40, and we started playing a bunch of deuces and I think he was starting to feel my presence on the return. From that point on, I broke him three straight times. Once we got to the fourth, I knew it wasn't going to be easy to break him, but if I got a little window I would have the confidence to execute."

As late bloomers go, Arthurs would appear close to the wilting stage. But with a serve like his, and an improved ranking from his Wimbledon campaign, he is capable of denting a few more reputations.

Agassi, asked if he would rate Arthurs' serve in the same league as Ivanisevic, Greg Rusedski and Mark Philipppoussis, said: "The serve itself definitely is. When you can hit four corners with a range of 30 miles-an-hour difference, that's a big serve. He can serve it flat, bomb out wide in the deuce court. He can hit 129 miles an hour. He can also hit a nasty kick, 98 miles an hour, in the deuce court. He can blast up the middle, or hit a nasty bender up the middle. He can serve to your body, and swing wide; he can swing you wide with pace, or without pace."

There must be a snag. "He hits his swerve as well as anybody, but he doesn't present much of a presence on the return game. So you feel like it's just a matter of time before you get a window or two. Some of the other guys can make themselves felt more on the return games, which puts even more pressure on you to concentrate on their serves. So there's a lot of things things going on out there."

There would be less going on, surely, if one Arthurs played against another, the type of Desperate Dan contest that prompts certain people in he game, such as the Lloyds of London (David and John), to question the future of the grass-court game.

"I've felt for more than a decade now that grass is a surface where you're not expecting to see many rallies," Agassi said. "I think the game would be boring if it saw a bunch of one type of player, whether it was a serve- and-volleyer or not. If everybody played like [Arthurs] did, that wouldn't be very good, because there is more to tennis than that.

"But the beauty of the game is that you can see match-ups. So, no, I don't think it's bad. These people have to be dealt with on every surface and, when they get their chance to do it on grass, God bless them, let them take a shot at it. Arthurs has done well."

Agassi, having arrived at Wimbledon as the newly crowned French Open champion, will have an opportunity when he plays Kuerten, the 1997 French champion, to show that two predominately baseline exponents can present a fascinating contrast of styles and personalities.

In view of the BBC's five-year deal, that would suit Yentob down the the ground (weather permitting).

yesterday at Wimbledon

Tim Henman leads Jim Courier, then the weather takes a hand

Jelena Dokic, 16, defeats No 9 seed Mary Pierce in straight sets

After early setbacks, Andre Agassi recovers his winning touch in style

Lindsay Davenport slips quietly into a challenging position