Agassi defies sands of time to delight Middle East fans

A packed house welcomed Andre Agassi to the Middle East for the first time last night, and the back-court genius from Las Vegas responded with a win against the Czech Radek Stepanek, 6-4, 7-5, in the opening round of the Dubai Duty Free Open.

Conceding only three points on serve in the opening set, the lively Agassi recovered from a break down in the second set, helped by his opponent's double-faults. He completed the task after an hour and 24 minutes.

Agassi, two months away from his 35th birthday and having to nurse a suspect hip, was asked why, as a man of considerable wealth and accomplishment, he continues to push himself so hard as a player. He has even re-enlisted for the United States Davis Cup team against Croatia next week after an absence of five years. The expression on Agassi's face suggested the question was purely rhetorical: "It's what I do, you know," he said. "It's what I do."

Tennis is what Tim Henman does, too. But, having devoted himself to Britain's Davis Cup cause for the past 10 years without winning a single tie in the World Group - never mind hugging the trophy three times like Agassi - he has retired from the team at 30 to concentrate on tournaments.

Agassi understands Henman's point of view. The American retired from Davis Cup because something had to give as he tried to balance the round of tournaments with bringing up a family and supervising a charitable foundation. It was only when the American captain, Patrick McEnroe, and the players, convinced Agassi that he was welcome back on an ad hoc basis that he changed his mind.

Henman's decision ensured there was more interest than usual yesterday in Britain's squad for the Euro/African Zone tie against Israel in Tel Aviv from 4 to 6 March. The captain, Jeremy Bates, relieved that the 31-year-old Greg Rusedski is willing to play on, named four contenders to share the load: Arvind Parmar, Andrew Murray, David Sherwood and Alex Bogdanovic, in that order.

Sherwood, from Sheffield, the 24-year-old son of the Olympians John and Sheila Sherwood, is the nation's fifth-ranked doubles player and may mark his first appearance in the squad by partnering Rusedski in Henman's absence.

That would leave Parmar, Murray and Bogdanovic to contest the second singles place. Parmar, 26, has Davis Cup experience, but has yet to win a match after five attempts.

Murray, the 17-year-old US Open junior champion from Scotland, is the nation's brightest prospect, but has yet to make an impression on the ATP Tour. Bogdanovic, 20, was considered to be the outstanding talent until Murray's emergence.

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