Agassi's Olympic efforts driven by uneasy memories of profligate past

American stalwart is intent on overcoming much-debated back problem to see out the twilight of his career at the top

Two days after losing to Pat Rafter in five sets in a sublime Wimbledon men's singles semi-final, Andre Agassi was driving through a Las Vegas suburb close to where he lives. He pulled up at a stop sign, and his Lincoln town car was rammed in the rear by another vehicle travelling at between 18 and 20 mph.

Two days after losing to Pat Rafter in five sets in a sublime Wimbledon men's singles semi-final, Andre Agassi was driving through a Las Vegas suburb close to where he lives. He pulled up at a stop sign, and his Lincoln town car was rammed in the rear by another vehicle travelling at between 18 and 20 mph.

There was no road rage. Agassi recognised the driver responsible, a neighbour who was acutely embarrassed by the situation. After examining the damaged Lincoln, Agassi decided there was no reason to file a police report, as no one was injured, and continued on his way.

While it is reassuring to know that people who perform wonders in their work are subject to the kind of mishaps that befall mere hacks and hackers, the repercussions of Agassi's shunt turned out to be more costly than a $11,000 repair bill.

"Initially after the accident I was not in pain, I was more startled than anything," Agassi recalled. "As the evening wore on, my back gradually got worse."

He withdrew from the United States Davis Cup team who were about to contest a semi-final in Spain and which had already lost the services of Pete Sampras, who was resting a shin injury after successfully attaining his seventh Wimbledon singles title. (Spain won, and will play Australia in the final in Barcelona in December).

George Fareed, the American team doctor, said Agassi had so much wanted to play the Davis Cup in Spain that he had received injections a couple of days after the car accident to help him heal. Fareed made the decision that Agassi should not play in the Davis Cup.

The scene moves to Los Angeles on Sunday 23 July. Agassi, who had been taking anti-inflammatory medication for lower back spasms, picked up a racket for the first time since the car accident. He complained of stiffness in his arms, but practised for half an hour in the hope of being able to compete in the Mercedes-Benz Cup, a tournament which had already been denied the participation of Gustavo Kuerten, Thomas Enqvist and Goran Ivanisevic because of injuries.

Next day, the tournament doctor, Domenick Sisto, held court. "Andre has not responded to to anti-inflammatory treatment," he said. "It is still very tight and tender in [the lower back] area. He is in consistent pain and it's best that he not play."

Agassi said that an MRI examination revealed he had a muscular problem rather than a structural one. "It feels like I got kicked in the back." He added that the car accident did not cause the injury but aggravated an already weak back. "I have a long history of back problems this year," he said.

Agassi reminded reporters that only days after winning the Australian Open in January he played in the Davis Cup in Zimbabwe and then had to withdraw from a tournament in San Jose because of back-muscle cramps and dehydration after a 36-hour flight.

He also mentioned that he fell on his back during the Stella Artois Championships at London's Queen's Club in June and took a week and a half off before Wimbledon, where he reached the semi-finals, "but not without pain."

ATP Tour officials were surprised when scepticism was expressed about the car accident. "I talked to people, and it did happen," a spokesperson said. "He's not in that kind of funk."

Family and friends of both Agassi and his coach, Brad Gilbert, had turned up for the Los Angeles tournament. "The whole camp set up shop for a few days," a spokesperson said. "It was not like a quick in and out."

The scene moves to the Masters Series tournament in Toronto on 1 August. Agassi, playing for the first time since Wimbledon, lost in the first round to the Frenchman Jerome Golmard, 7-6, 7-6.

"Was the car accident a factor at all?" Agassi was asked. "No, my back was," he replied. "It wasn't ready for the pounding, because I certainly felt it stiffen up. I just wasn't able to be at my best today and that's the problem. It will be a worry until the back is a hundred per cent."

"Andre," a reporter ventured, "[John] McEnroe seemed to imply [in his television commentary] that you were faking the injury. Do you have any reaction to that?"

"He'd have to say that straight out for me to address it," Agassi said. "Responding to that isn't going to make sense."

Today the scene moves to the Master Series event in Cincinnati where Agassi has been drawn to play South Africa's Wayne Ferrera in the first round.

The thought occurs that, whatever the reason for Agassi's dodgy back, the most popular player of his generation continues to carry baggage from his cavalier past.

It took a mighty recovery to No 1 in the world after his slump to No 141 in November 1997 to convince the doubters that Agassi was truly a champion of substance, although even then Jimmy Connors was of the opinion that Agassi deserved to have his butt kicked for sinking so low in the first place.

The irony of the current situation is that the 30-year-old Agassi, once regarded as tennis's great under-achiever, may be in danger of overstretching himself when there is nothing left for him to prove.

Only one other player has ever accomplished Agassi's feat of winning the four Grand Slam singles titles plus an Olympic Games gold medal for singles, and that is his girlfriend Steffi Graf.

But, driven perhaps by the realisation that he can never recapture the missed opportunities of his profligate early years, Agassi seems determined to squeeze every last ounce of success from what remains of his career.

That is why he is prepared to defend his Olympic title in Sydney next month, even though it requires him to travel to Australia immediately after his defence of the United States Open men's singles championship at Flushing Meadow, New York (28 August to 10 September).

The schedule is too tight for some notables, particularly Sampras, who has a record 13 Grand Slam singles titles to his name, Switzerland's Martina Hingis, the women's world No 1 and the youngest major champion of the 20th century, and the Russian, Anna Kournikova, whose glamour lacks the embellishment of a singles championship of any description.

Sampras, to be fair, withstood pain from his shin throughout the Wimbledon championship in order to break the Grand Slam record he previously shared with Australia's Roy Emerson, and Olympic participation has never been among the Californian's priorities (his one appearance was at Barcelona in 1992, when he reached the last 16).

Due to mark his 29th birthday next Saturday, Sampras uses the traditional hallmark of the Grand Slams as his standard of excellence, and in that respect he has only dragged his feet on the clay courts of the French Open, the one major title missing from his collection.

"To me," Agassi said, "the Olympic Games represent the core of what sports are all about - human challenge and triumph. The reward is pride - not anything material or short lived."

Perhaps, although Agassi's participation in Atlanta might have been short lived had the officials been less lenient with regard to his audible obscenities. But he was allowed to go on to triumph and was given a hug by his Armenian-born father, Mike, who boxed for Iran at the 1952 Olympics at Helsinki and encouraged his son to punish tennis balls with the confidence of an Ali.

The sincerity of Agassi's commitment to compete at Sydney is not questioned. But the trip will be dependent on the condition of his back, however much or little he plays in the weeks ahead.

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