Agassi puts in model performance

Andre Agassi had to cope with the power, accuracy and consistency of Max Mirnyi's serve and the novelty of models acting as ball-girls in his opening match at the Madrid Masters here last night.

Andre Agassi had to cope with the power, accuracy and consistency of Max Mirnyi's serve and the novelty of models acting as ball-girls in his opening match at the Madrid Masters here last night.

Mirnyi, of Belarus, provided a greater challenge, and was unlucky to lose the opening set as the 34-year-old American edged to a 7-6, 6-3 win. It was Agassi's first match since losing to Roger Federer in the US Open quarter-finals on 9 September, and he had difficulty controlling his shots because of the balls' speed at altitude.

Agassi, the No 2 seed, had to save three break points in the seventh game of the opening set, in which Mirnyi won 16 straight service points, dropped only two, and then lost the tie-break, 7-5.

As for the models, Agassi had to advise one of them in the second game of the second set that she was standing in the wrong place in the corner and should have been beside the net. His overall impression? "It was difficult, to say the least, to concentrate on the ball," he said. "At least I had an advantage from playing with my wife.

"I suppose I need them to let [ideas absorb]. I'm not quite convinced it's part of our product. The skirts seem to be difficult for them to run in. They should be shortened, maybe."

Tim Henman will not have models doing the fetching and carrying during his opening match against Albert Costa, of Spain, who said he had not been distracted by the girls from the catwalk in his first-round match against Irakli Labadze on Monday. The models are only on duty for the televised opening match of each night session. Henman is due on second during the day.

Henman, given a bye in the first round, was in good spirits as he prepared to go into a Masters Series event as the No 1 seed for the first time in his career. His greeting was accompanied by a smile. "I think you should probably bow now," he said.

Elevated in the absence of the world's top four players, Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt and Guillermo Coria, Henman needs to be more than a king for a day if he is to strengthen his prospects of qualifying for the Masters Cup in Houston next month.

Costa, the 2002 French Open champion, may be ranked No 54 but he has the groundstrokes to worry Henman if the British No 1's attacking style misses a beat.

This will be their 10th meeting. Henman leads the series, 6-3, but lost their last two matches, in 2002 and 2001. "We've had some tough matches in the past, some strange results," Costa said. "He's beaten me on clay, and I've beaten him on hard court. I'm going to try and return from inside the baseline and try and make him play. If he can deal with that, then that's too good, but I think I can trouble him."

Henman, who believes he is ready to meet the challenge, having taken a short break to ease aching lower back and shoulder muscles, was keen to keep his lofty seeding in perspective.

"What does being a top seed mean? Well," he said, "it means I'm at the top of the draw. But there are still so many good players. [Juan Carlos] Ferrero won last year, and Agassi's playing, and you've got [Marat] Safin and [David] Nalbandian, and others, and you've got to be ready to go.

"I've won tournaments as top seed, and I've lost pretty early. I really don't think it means a great deal. It means you avoid the other top players in the early rounds. We've got byes this tournament, and that can be a good thing or a bad thing, because the other players have got a match under their belt."

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