Hrbaty forces Agassi to make an artless exit

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Given that Andre Agassi was playing his first tournament since injuring a hamstring last month, and is back on European clay for the first time since his triumph at the French Open last June, we shall be charitable about his straight-sets defeat in the third round of the Italian Open yesterday and give full credit to his splendid opponent, Dominik Hrbaty.

It is not the first time the hard-driving 22-year-old Slovak has beaten Agassi: Hrbaty recovered from 1-6 to overcome the American in three sets in Key Biscayne last year, and came back from two sets down to threaten an upset in the semi-finals of the French Open, where a rain delay helped Agassi secure the match after Hrbaty led 2-1 in the fourth set.

Apart from seeing Agassi on the other side of the net again, Hrbaty was motivated by two factors yesterday. His coach made sure he received updates on Slovakia's progress in the world ice-hockey championships in Russia - they defeated the United States 4-1 in he quarter-finals - and he wanted to perform well for crowd on the Centre Court at the Foro Italico.

"After I hit one ball really well to win a rally in the first set I smiled," Hrbaty said. "When I start to smile on court, I'm relaxed. If you concentrate too hard you can't play your best tennis. Sometimes it's better to smile and play for the people, and that's what I did today."

Hrbaty had reason to be happy as he reproduced the best of the form that took him to the final of the Monte Carlo Open last month (he was defeated by the Frenchman Cedric Pioline) to overcome Agassi, the world No 1, 6-4, 6-4, after an hour and 18 minutes.

"Dominik certainly played well today," Agassi said. "He hit the ball with some pace. He was hitting with conviction and consistency, and he served well at important moments."

Although Hrbaty double-faulted to lose a sloppy service game after breaking for 3-1, he atoned by cracking Agassi's serve a second time with a crosscourt forehand drive on his first set point at 5-4.

One or two of Agassi's errors drew whistles in the second set - particularly a hacker's volley in the fourth game and a tamely netted forehand approach in the fifth - but he did create a break point at 4-4, only for Hrbaty to cap a service return with a forehand winner.

As in the opening set, Agassi was broken in the 10th game, but this time boos accompanied his progress to 0-40 by netting a smash, hitting a backhand long and mis-hitting a forehand. He saved one match point with a service winner, and then double-faulted.

"If the match goes like that a couple of weeks from now, I could be in big trouble, two sets down [at the French Open]," Agassi said. "I feel I had another level there waiting for me, but he played too well and closed me out."

Agassi indicated that he may withdraw from next week's Masters Series tournament in Hamburg. "I need a little bit of time for rest and physical work off the court," he said. "I'm honest about this. I want to give myself the best chance in Paris."

Greg Rusedski, the British No 2, may also miss the Hamburg tournament because of a recurrence of back trouble. Rusedski lost in the first round here to the Spaniard Fernanado Vicente.

Rome has not been one of Agassi's more successful locations. He has reached the final only once in seven visits. That was in 1989 when he was defeated by the Argentinian Alberto Mancini, 6-1 in the fifth set, after holding match points before losing a tie-break in the fourth set.

Gustavo Kuerten, the Brazilian defending champion, had a walkover to the quarter-finals after his Morrocan opponent Younes El Aynaoui withdrew because of an injury to his left heel. Kuerten, the No 4 seed, will play the unseeded Spaniard Albert Costa, who defeated his compatriot Francisco Clavet, 6-3, 6-2. Costa was finalist in 1998.

Australia's Lleyton Hewitt, competing in his first clay court event of the year, advanced to the quarter-finals with a 7-6, 2-6, 6-3 win against Sweden's Thomas Enqvist, the No 7 seed. Hewitt, seeded No 9, plays Mariano Puerto, a compact, powerful Argentinian left-hander, who outlasted Juan Carlos Ferrero, the Spanish No 16 seed, 7-6, 3-6, 6-4.

The Indian pair of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, winners of last year's Wimbledon and French Open doubles titles, will no longer play together on the ATP Tour. However, the pair named as the ATP Tour doubles team of the year last month will continue to play together for India in the Davis Cup and the Olympics this year.

Results (seedings in brackets)

Third Round

Mariano Puerta (Arg) def. (16) Juan Carlos Ferrero (Sp) 7-6 (5), 3-6, 6-4. Albert Costa (Sp) def. Francisco Clavet (Sp) 6-3, 6-2. (4) Gustavo Kuerten (Bra) def. (14) Younes El Aynaoui (Mor). W.O. (15) Dominik Hrbaty (SA) def. (1) Andre Agassi 6-4, 6-4.