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Paris Goes 'Country' as Agassi Goes Home

Tennis: Woodruff, from Tennessee, ousts the third-seeded player in the second round of French Open.

May 30, 1996|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — Walking into the tunnel that leads onto the Court Suzanne Lenglen, Andre Agassi and Chris Woodruff set down their bags of gear and waited. Woodruff, ranked 72nd and fresh off the satellite tour, had never been to the French Open and he had never had occasion to meet Agassi, ranked 69 places above him.

Woodruff glanced at Agassi, who came over, extended his hand and said, "How you doin'? My name is Andre."

Whether it was simply a polite gesture or intended as a psych-out ultimately didn't matter. Woodruff, a former college player from Knoxville, Tenn., whose tour nickname is "Country," had his own introduction in mind, and carried it off, showing the third-seeded Agassi the door on Wednesday with a stunning second-round victory, 4-6, 6-4, 6-7 (7-9), 6-3, 6-2.

The three-hour match produced the tournament's first upset, involving one of tennis' most widely known and flamboyant players and . . . Huck Finn. Woodruff, whose twangy Southern accent and bright, eager face make him seem more boyish than 23, accomplished what far more experienced players have been unable to do. He matched Agassi blow for blow and understood that the secret to defeating on clay the player ranked No. 3 in the world is to exploit his lack of patience.

"I thought he was pretty impatient sometimes," said Woodruff, whose manners did not allow him to criticize Agassi. "He was pretty determined to drive the ball through me after four or five shots. I don't think he played defense very well."

It's not that Agassi didn't play well. The problem is, he's not always motivated to do so. His play of late appears to be fueled by anger. He was given a point penalty for obscene language in his first-round match, one step away from default.

Wednesday, Agassi played well for one set, then his interest seemed to wane. He opened the fifth set by winning his serve at love, then held three break points in the next game but failed to convert. By then, Agassi's mind was already wheels-up, flying back to Las Vegas with his fiancee, Brooke Shields.

It was a familiar scenario for Agassi, who has been the butt of jokes here for showing up overweight and with a cue-ball shaved head. David Mercer, a commentator for BBC-TV, frequently noted during the telecast that Agassi declined to go after balls late in the match. "He's simply given up," Mercer said.

Woodruff's coach, Scott Perelman agreed that by the seventh game of the fifth set, Agassi had "packed it in." Agassi committed 63 unforced errors.

Agassi continues to struggle at the French Open, the only Grand Slam tournament he has not won. He went out in the quarterfinals here last year, when he was ranked No. 1 and was holding an 18-match winning streak in Grand Slam events. He called the loss a great disappointment.

Agassi's thoughts about Wednesday's loss are his alone. He was required to meet with reporters after the match but failed to show, just as he had when he was knocked out of the tournament at Indian Wells.

According to officials with the International Tennis Federation, Agassi, who this year has earned more than half a million dollars in prize money, will be fined $2,000.

On the other hand, Woodruff talked and talked. He was an instant hit with the international press, who, upon learning Woodruff was from Tennessee, appeared convinced he had arrived in Paris on horseback. Woodruff was questioned at length about country music and square dancing. He talked about his parents, Bob and Dottie.

Polite to reporters, Woodruff was earnest and thoughtful, and, most unusual in tennis, honest. At one point he was asked if he coveted Agassi's lavish lifestyle. He shook his head emphatically.

"No, sir," he said. "The way he lives is not the way I want to live. I was brought up in a small town. I have small-town values. I guess to each his own. Obviously, he has a lot of money, he can do what he wants. The way he lives, the flamboyance, that's not my style."

Woodruff attended the University of Tennessee and was the NCAA champion in 1993. He left school after his sophomore year and embarked on the grueling world of satellite tennis--a fringe tour that travels to remote parts of the world. He and his coach set out, like two country rubes, with rucksacks.

"I don't speak any languages but English," Woodruff said. "It was very frustrating. A lot of times we'd get lost, my coach and I. Both of us are hard-headed. When somebody gives us directions, it just goes in one ear and out the other. Got lost a lot."

At this time last year, Woodruff was ready to quit. He was talked out of it and began to win tournaments and valuable ATP points, which were his ticket to the tour. His ranking has already rocketed and he has earned $113,945 this season. He's finally comfortable, but it's nothing like home.

"Before I came out on the tour, I was a bit timid," he said in a voice that rose barely above a whisper. "I didn't feel like I belonged. I've earned my way up here, playing satellites.

"This game--it took me a while to learn--is pretty cutthroat. Everybody is out here for No. 1. I came out here and I didn't know that. It was just a shock to come out here and everybody care about themselves, basically. That took me a while."

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