Agassi 'preservation plan' to play on grass not clay

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The Independent Online

Andre Agassi knows he is in his twilight years as a player and is determined to enjoy every moment he has left. The 35-year-old American's 1992 Wimbledon triumph remains one of his most cherished victories and he revealed here yesterday that he will miss the entire clay court season in order to be in the best possible shape to play on grass this summer.

Because of ankle and hip injuries Agassi has played in only two tournaments since losing to Roger Federer in the US Open final last September and made his first tentative appearance of the year at Delray Beach a month ago.

He is playing here in the Dubai Duty Free Open, which begins today, and will go on to the Masters series tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami, but will miss the French Open and the rest of the European clay court season in order to concentrate on Wimbledon before going on to the American hard courts and the US Open. He said he planned to play a tournament on grass before Wimbledon but had not decided where.

"It's a preservation plan," Agassi said. "The clay has been pretty tough on my body over the last few years. In the last two years it's unfortunately been the specific reason why I haven't been ready for Wimbledon. I feel I can't compete properly with all the guys who play so well on that surface."

Having had a cortisone injection in his back, Agassi hopes to recover a reasonable level of fitness. "It's nine minutes of absolute pain, but I figure that if it can buy me three months then that's fair enough," he said.

Agassi faces Britain's Greg Rusedski in the first round here tonight and was leaving nothing to chance in his preparations. He practised yesterday with another left-handed serve-and-volley specialist, Spain's Feliciano Lopez, who enjoyed his best run at a Grand Slam tournament when he reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon last summer.

Lopez's first-round opponent here is Tim Henman, who was grateful to the organisers for a late wild card. Henman will be overtaken today by Andy Murray as the British No 1 in the latest rankings list and he has made it clear that unless his form improves he will retire soon, possibly by the end of 2006. "If it doesn't go to plan this year and I realise that I can't achieve the goals I've set for myself, then I'll stop," he said. "I guess that would make it my last Wimbledon [this year]."

A strong field is headed by the world No 1, Roger Federer, who begins his attempt to win here for the fourth time by taking on his fellow Swiss, Stanislas Wawrinka, and the world No 2, Rafael Nadal, who has been troubled by a foot injury and made his first appearance for three months in Marseilles recently.