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Two Cruel Twists of Fate

Tennis: Injuries force Agassi, Serena Williams out of Australian Open. His wrist problem could be career-threatening.

January 14, 2002|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MELBOURNE, Australia — The weather and mood hovering over the Australian Open today were in virtual lock-step, creating a tumultuous start to the first Grand Slam event in 2002.

Glum ... and glummer.

Hours before the first ball was served at Melbourne Park, two-time defending champion and No. 3-seeded Andre Agassi was out. Agassi suffered an aggravation of an injury to his right wrist Saturday in an exhibition against Pete Sampras and agreed it could be considered career-threatening, especially at 31.

"Sure, I'm always worried about that, especially at this age," said Agassi, who brought his wife Steffi Graf and infant son Jaden Gil with him to Australia.

The second blow came in the first hour of play. Fifth-seeded Serena Williams, who could have played older sister Venus in the semifinals, withdrew hours before her scheduled match against Conchita Martinez because of an injured right ankle. She turned it trying to chase a drop shot in Friday's semifinal at Sydney against Meghann Shaughnessy, kept playing and then retired late in the first set.

Williams was unable to practice Sunday, asked for a late start but didn't receive it and pulled out today. Her departure most benefits No. 3 Martina Hingis of Switzerland. Williams represented a major obstacle for Hingis in the quarterfinals, a sizable challenge before a possible semifinal against Venus.

And so, potential marquee matches--Hingis vs. Serena, Serena vs. Venus or Agassi vs. Andy Roddick and Agassi vs. Sampras--vanished into the cool morning and the tournament lost a bit of luster.

Then, fittingly, it rained, causing delays in the afternoon.

Short-term, Agassi's injury disrupted the intramural American quarter of the draw with Roddick, Sampras and Jan-Michael Gambill, and for the first time since 1999, Agassi will be leaving here without the singles title.

His place is assumed by lucky loser Irakli Labadze of Georgia, who, incidentally, defeated Agassi when they played in September.

The larger implications are more ominous for Agassi. He was clad in black at an early-morning news conference at the Como Hotel, and was subdued, still trying to absorb the shock.

"The pain was bad and very familiar," Agassi said. "I'll have to get back and get to the bottom of it.

"My experience in the past isn't a good one. I attempted to play through the pain in 1993 [and] that led to surgery in December."

His history with the wrist led him to withdraw, not wanting to push through the pain. He gave tournament director Paul McNamee the news on the eve of the tournament but said he would not have changed his mind if the wrist had improved today.

"Even in waking up this morning--it doesn't feel any better--but had it, I still would have felt I was in a difficult position." Agassi said. "Because I'm going into three out of five [sets], going into a situation where I'm going to hit a lot of shots that are going to put me in a compromising situation.

"I would still have a very brutal decision to make. Best-case scenario, I would be playing with a pretty significant concern and fear in my mind. Really the decision, while not an easy one, it was a pretty clear one."

Agassi said the injury occurred in the first set of his three-set exhibition against Sampras.

It started to concern him as the match went on, especially on the forehand side. His two-handed backhand was fine.

The next morning, though, he knew it was serious. In 1993, Agassi had the wrist evaluated at UCLA and had it operated on by a specialist in Santa Barbara to repair the damage.

"There was no guarantee how long that would last, so there is a long-term concern here that leaves me in a pretty difficult situation," said Agassi, who added he could not even stretch his wrist back, let alone face a "130-mph shot and redirect it."

McNamee, the affable longtime tournament director, was nearly as grim but tried to look ahead.

"Andre's from Vegas, he knows better than anyone the show must go on," McNamee said. "There will be more things happening these next two weeks."

That was prescient. But certainly he couldn't have anticipated the next development.

Williams had been holding out hope that her ankle would improve. She considered trying to get through one match, and with her talent, it was certainly not out of the question against Spain's Martinez.

Williams still found herself restricted in her movements Sunday.

"I went to practice and I couldn't really move on my toes and it was kind of hard for me to stop," Williams said. "I could just take this one off and come back a little sooner."

Unlike Agassi, Williams, 20, has some years in her favor.

"It didn't seem to work out," she said. "As long as I'm healthy, this is just a small hiccup in the road, a small pebble."

As for being denied a late start, Williams took the high road.

"It would be bogus to say I'm not disappointed," she said. "But I'm here to take it as a champion. Ideally, I'd prefer to have a Tuesday start, but I'm not here to start a controversy."

Lina Krasnoroutskaya of Russia takes Williams' place in the draw; lucky loser Pavlina Nola of New Zealand gets the Russian's slot.

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What Might Have Been

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