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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Agassi, Seles Win Openers in Style

Tennis: Men's top seed defeats Bjorkman and top woman trounces Li.

July 24, 1996|BILL DWYRE | TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

ATLANTA — It may have been opening day for the Olympic tennis tournament, and it may have been a red, white and blue start for the U.S. team. But as the tennis world goes, it was business as usual for American stars Andre Agassi and Monica Seles, both top-seeded in this event.

Agassi, a marketing genius who plays tennis in his spare time, made yet another fashion statement during his 7-6 (8-6), 7-6 (7-5) victory over Sweden's dangerous Jonas Bjorkman.

In temperatures and humidity resembling those of a fat-farm sauna, Agassi took the court dressed in a long-sleeved white shirt. He later explained that this sort of outfit, the concept and design of which had been his idea, was actually better suited for staying cool in this sort of humid hell because it keeps the hot sun off one's skin and keeps the sweat cool all the way down one's arms.

He also wore a little cycling cap--red, white and blue, of course--that included a tiny tipped-up bill that said "USA." Early arrivals might have wondered if they were watching Olympic tennis or the Tour de Atlanta.

Seles, gobbling up this Olympic experience as if it were stuffed and on the Thanksgiving table, beat a low-ranking Chinese player named Li Chen in 59 minutes, 6-0, 6-4, then gleefully signed autographs for perhaps a quarter of that time.

Looking a bit like Cal Ripken Jr. doing Camden Yards, she worked the sidelines with quick hand and pen, leaving no offered ticket stub, cap or T-shirt uninked, delighting hundreds in the sellout crowd of 12,000 at the first event played at the new Stone Mountain tennis facility.

"I always sign them," Seles said afterward. "I remember in 1992, at the Madison Square Garden, after my finals, I stayed there at least an hour or longer to sign. . . . Maybe one of the reasons is because, when I was a child, the Ping-Pong tournament was in my hometown and I went up to this guy and asked for his autograph. I was little and he just brushed me off, and not even with a smile. I went home and I was really sad. When somebody signs something, I think it makes your day, especially if you look up to that person."

Although Li had no chance against Seles, Bjorkman was expected to give Agassi all he could handle. The Swede, ranked 60 spots below the No. 3 Agassi, was as high as No. 21 a year ago and has numerous victories against top players, including countryman Stefan Edberg in the 1994 U.S. Open.

Agassi, on the other hand, got into the semifinals at the Australian, won at Lipton and since has made a series of premature exits this season, including an embarrassing departure against qualifier Doug Flach at Wimbledon.

So when Bjorkman served-and-volleyed his way to a 3-0 lead in the first set, amid swirling gusts that were bothering both players early, it appeared possible that Agassi's Olympic chance could be gone with the wind.

But Agassi, struggling with shaky confidence and an inconsistent forehand, battled back, got into a tiebreaker, fought off two set points in that tiebreaker and, with some let-cord luck at 6-6 of the breaker, got through the first set.

Then, with Bjorkman serving for the second set at 5-4--and with Bjorkman blowing a chance for two set points when he cranked a sitter 10 feet beyond the baseline--Agassi scratched his way into another tiebreaker. He won that when Bjorkman's second serve at 5-5 nestled deep in the backhand corner of the service box, was called out for a double fault and match point. A little home-court advantage and it was game, set, match, Agassi.

It was also a little psychological boost for somebody who badly needed one.

"I stayed entirely competitive throughout," Agassi said. "That, to me, is the most important. I didn't get discouraged on myself or disappointed. I managed to keep fighting to try to get it right, and, you know, it is not great yet by any means. But it is OK. I will get there."

Seles, playing through a left shoulder injury that will eventually need surgery, is hoping to get there too, or at least somewhere closer to the level that had made her one of the greatest women's players of all time.

"I feel OK," she said. "I don't feel as comfortable as I would want to, and hopefully I will get to play and put in more hours for the U.S. Open."

Agassi and Seles were the only Americans competing Tuesday. Defending men's champion Marc Rosset of Switzerland, seeded eighth, got through an easy match against Hicham Arazi of Morocco, 6-2, 6-3, and title contender Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario of Spain, seeded third, got past Dominique Van Roost of Belgium, 6-1, 7-5.

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