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Agassi Tries to Work Major Magic

Since winning the Australian Open in 2003, the 34-year-old hasn't been past the semifinals at tennis' grandest stages.

August 29, 2004|From Associated Press

NEW YORK — We've seen this scenario before:

A thirtysomething former No. 1 and multiple major champion, in a Grand Slam slump but certain he can still hack it, comes to the U.S. Open and ... wins the thing.

Pete Sampras did it in 2002. Can Andre Agassi in 2004?

"I'm dealing with questions I've never had before," Agassi said. "You know: Why can't I get over the hump? Why has it taken me longer than I would want it to? You can't get around the fact that the challenges are different at 34 than they are at 24. So it's uncharted territory for me every year now."

When play starts Monday at the National Tennis Center, Agassi's bid for a ninth major title will be chief among a crop of compelling story lines:

* Can Andy Roddick ride his 150 mph serve and improving overall game to another Open title in his first defense of a Slam? "The biggest fear before last year was the fear of the unknown," he said. "Now I know I can do it."

* Can Serena and Venus Williams, who missed the 2003 Open with injuries, re-emerge as the best in the women's game? Venus hasn't won a major in three years, Serena in 14 months.

* Can No. 1 Roger Federer, so dominant all year and champion at three of the past five Slams, finally have an impact at the Open, the major where he's fared the worst?

* Can No. 1 Justine Henin-Hardenne repeat as champion even though she's played only eight matches in the last 4 1/2 months while recovering from a viral illness? She looked fantastic in winning a gold medal at the Olympics; the Athens tournament ended last Sunday, which is why the Open starts a week later than usual.

* Can Lindsay Davenport, who's talked about retiring but won her past four tournaments, win a fourth major at 28?

* Can Maria Sharapova, all of 17, follow up her Wimbledon championship with a strong Open? Can another of the rising Russians give their country a third straight major title?

Agassi, twice Sharapova's age, is one of just five men with a career Grand Slam. Like Sampras, who quit after beating Agassi to win major No. 14 at the Open two years ago, he figures his legacy will be defined by total Slam victories.

"He probably goes into the Open thinking: 'OK, I can do it one more time,"' U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe said. "I think we all know that's what he's looking for."

Since winning the Australian Open in 2003, though, Agassi hasn't been past the semifinals at tennis' grandest stages.

He lost in the first round in May at the French Open to a guy who never had played a tour-level match, part of a four-match losing streak, Agassi's longest in seven years.

Then he pulled out of Wimbledon, citing a bad hip, sparking talk that he might be finished -- or at least unwilling to risk endorsement deals with poor showings at big events.

Yet Agassi won this month's hard-court Masters tournament in Cincinnati, beating four past major champions along the way. His last three wins there were against former No. 1s: Carlos Moya, Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt.

Agassi reached the semifinals at a tuneup at Washington the next week to get to third in the new US Open Series standings, meaning he'll earn a 10 percent bonus in prize money at the Open.

"You can never write Andre Agassi off. He hits the ball so well out there, he's always going to come up with results," said Hewitt, the 2001 Open champion. "Nothing really surprises me with Andre."

Nor should it.

After all, Agassi dropped out of the top 100 in 1997, but worked his game back into shape in minor league tournaments and wound up winning four of eight majors starting at the '99 French Open.

The Cincinnati title was Agassi's first in 16 months. Yet the way he played the past two weeks, no one should doubt that Agassi will contend at Flushing Meadows, even if he does have to play Federer in the quarterfinals.

"It's given me belief going into the Open, and gives me the chance to really play my best tennis when it matters the most, which for two major tournaments this year I haven't been able to," he said. "In many ways it's been a frustrating year, but to get through it and to win, it reminds you why you do what you do."

Such stars as John McEnroe, Boris Becker and Ivan Lendl never won a major after 30. Just this month, Agassi fell out of the top 10 for the first time in five years, but now he's seeded sixth at the Open, the oldest player that highly regarded since Jimmy Connors was also No. 6 at age 36 in 1988.

With a tough training regimen, Agassi just keeps grinding away at an age by which Bjorn Borg and Jim Courier had quit. And, careful to carve out time to spend with wife Steffi Graf and their two children, the focus is squarely on the Slams.

This U.S. Open will be his 19th, more than he's played any other tournament. He won it in 1994 and 1999, and was runner-up to Sampras twice.

"You want to feel fresh, you want to feel healthy every week," Agassi said. "But I just don't think that's realistic for me these days, so I want to prepare myself for the biggest ones and do my best to be at my best."

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