Agassi feels pain of French early exit

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The Independent Online

Andre Agassi will have a cortisone injection deep in his back in an attempt to compete at Wimbledon next month.

Andre Agassi will have a cortisone injection deep in his back in an attempt to compete at Wimbledon next month.

The 35-year-old American missed the All England Club event last year, believing a hip injury was the cause of chronic pain in his right leg and ankle. He later discovered that the sciatic nerve in the back was the cause of the problem.

Yesterday Agassi set a record for the Open era (since 1968) by playing in his 58th Grand Slam tournament, but he was oblivious to the achievement as the back trouble caused him to look older than his years.

Agassi, defeated in the first round at the French Open by a qualifier, Jarkko Nieminen, of Finland, 7-5, 4-6, 6-7, 6-1, 6-0, admitted: "I almost shook hands at two sets to one up because it was painful to serve, to move, to stand, even to sit."

So obvious was Agassi's discomfort that spectators wondered why he did not call a halt to a lost cause. "I didn't want to leave that way," he explained.

Advised to have three cortisone injections within a year, Agassi had the first before playing in Dubai in February. "I have every intention of playing Wimbledon," he said. "I have high hopes with another injection. But something tells me I'm at a stage of my career where I'm going to be living with these injections, because I can't play when it feels like this."

"The injection I had before Dubai had great results for me for a few months, but that was on hard courts, two out of three sets. But it gradually got worse."

Asked why he continues to play, with nothing to prove on the court and with a wife and children and one of the happiest bank managers in the world, Agassi said: "Well, it's what I do. It's what I do until I don't do it any more. And it's given me a lot. I choose to put my head down and work and look at it at the end of the year."

Greg Rusedski's tournament also ended in the opening round, The 31-year-old British No 2 was defeated by Flavio Saretta, of Brazil, a lucky loser from the qualifying event, 6-2, 7-6, 6-3. Although outmanoeuvred by the 135th-ranked Saretta's clay-court skills, Rusedski had two set points in the second-set tie-break, only to produce double-faults.

"I'm excited - the grass-court season is coming up," said Rusedski, who has won only one Tour match on clay in the past four years.

Maria Sharapova, the 18-year-old Wimbledon singles champion, had a lucky escape in her opening match against Evgenia Linetskaya, a Russian compatriot and her senior by five months.

Linetskaya won a tie-break in the opening set, 7-3, and was denied a 4-1 lead in the third set by a controversial line call. Sharapova won five of the last six games to win, 6-7, 6-2, 6-4.

Speaking from a height of 6ft 8in, Dick Norman outlined yesterday his anathema of Surbiton, where he is entered for the tournament next week. "I don't like to go there," the 34-year-old Belgian said, "First of all, a lot of top-100 players are there. Second, the hotel is bad; the [racket] stringer is bad; the meal is bad. Try it yourself if you don't believe me."

Norman, best remembered for defeating Stefan Edberg en route to the fourth round at Wimbledon in 1995, was addressing the Belgian media after defeating Jean-René Lisnard, of France, 6-1, 6-1, 6-4, as a lucky loser. If his luck runs out this week, he can expect a warm welcome in Surrey.

* The former women's world No 1 Kim Clijsters will make her debut at the Hastings Direct International Championships in Eastbourne this summer. Clijsters, 21, is the latest big name to confirm her participation in the event, joining her fellow Belgian Justine Henin-Hardenne and last year's runner-up, Amélie Mauresmo.