Agassi, Williams and Pierce succumb to injuries

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The Independent Online

The Australian Open lost its defending champion and two of its biggest female draw cards yesterday after Andre Agassi withdrew on the opening day with a career-threatening injury.

Serena Williams also pulled out and Mary Pierce retired in her first match.

Agassi's decision, announced just before the start of play, sent ripples of shock through the first Grand Slam of 2002. The Las Vegan, recently married with a new baby, had appeared fighting fit and keen to win the Open for the third year in a row. But he aggravated an old wrist injury while playing Pete Sampras in the final of the Kooyong exhibition on Saturday.

The growing toll of injured absentees was boosted by several high-profile casualties of competition, most notably Gustavo Kuerten, the hugely talented Brazilian No 2 seed who goes to pieces every time that he plays at Melbourne Park. "Guga" has rarely progressed beyond the first round: this year he lost to Julien Boutter, of France, 3-6, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-3.

The twice French Open finalist and No 14 seed, Alex Corretja, was also defeated, 5-7, 7-6, 6-3, 6-2 by America's James Blake. Among the women's seeds knocked out were the No 9, Sandrine Testud, of France, defeated 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 by her compatriot Nathalie Dechy.

Agassi, 31, said that while he was bitterly disappointed to miss the Open, the ramifications of his injury were more serious. "There's a long-term concern," he said. "I am worried it is career-ending. At this age it doesn't take many weeks out of the sport for it to be career-ending."

As officials and spectators contemplated the gaping hole left by his departure, news came through that Serena Williams, the No 5 seed, had withdrawn after spraining her right ankle at the adidas International in Sydney last week.

"If you only knew how big a disappointment it is to come all this way and then have to turn around, go home and start all over," she said. "This is a really tough result for me. I think I could have done beyond well here."

She was joined on the sidelines by France's Mary Pierce, who retired from her match against Jill Craybass, of the United States, after just four games. Pierce, who missed most of last year with back problems and tendinitis, pulled a stomach muscle.

Elsewhere in the women's competition, Martina Hingis sailed through a 6-2, 6-2 victory over Virginie Razzo, of France, while Venus Williams, the favourite to win the tournament, achieved the same result against her fellow American Ansley Cargill. Monica Seles, the No 8 seed, beat Patty Schnyder, of Switzerland, 6-1, 6-2.

In the men's draw, Yevgeny Kafelnikov overcame Germany's Michael Kohlmann 6-3, 6-3, 6-2, while the Wimbledon champion, Goran Ivanisevic – a loser in the first round of qualifying here last year – defeated Martin Damm, of the Czech Republic, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6, 6-4.

The home crowd favourite Mark Philippoussis made a triumphant return to Grand Slam tennis after more than a year out with a knee injury, beating the Spaniard Galo Blanco 6-3, 6-4, 7-5.

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