Agassi’s Farewell to England Lives To See Another Match

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The New York Sun

WIMBLEDON, England – After about a half hour on Centre Court yesterday, Andre Agassi’s goodbye to Wimbledon looked to be a brief one.

The 36-year-old Agassi, bound for retirement after the U.S. Open, entered to a rousing applause, his racket bag slung over his shoulder and his hand waiving to the crowd. There was little to cheer about, however, in the first set against 23-year-old Boris Pashanski of Serbia, ranked no. 71 in the world. Agassi played ragged tennis, mistiming forehands, over-hitting his backhand, and returning serve with uncharacteristic wildness.He looked every bit as uncomfortable as he claimed to be in the few matches he had played earlier this year.

A forehand service return winner seemed to bring Agassi to life. It was 1-1, 15-30 in the second set, and Pashanski had missed a chance to break in the second game.Waiting on a second serve, Agassi stepped around his backhand and unloaded a winner down the near sideline. He finished off the break with a crisp backhand, a rare sight at that point.

Agassi was hardly spectacular the rest of the way, but his play was at least competent. His habits, if not his shots, were vintage Agassi – the short shuffling steps, four or five quick ball bounces before each serve, the clipped strokes that meet the ball as early as possible.And at times the results were not half bad, including a few finely angled forehands and 17 aces .Agassi told reporters that he was pleased to at least find some rhythm by the end of the match.

“I went from nervous to slightly embarrassed to digging in and getting more comfortable as it went on,” he said.

He declined to reveal much about his health, saying only, “I’ve had years where I felt better.”Television commentator Mary Carillo, speaking in a press conference last night, said Agassi was limping a little when he arrived at the television studio after the match.

At age 36 and rusty, Agassi likely would not have survived a difficult firstround match. In Pashanski, he found the perfect opponent, someone whose limit ed firepower could hardly keep Agassi from engaging in rallies. Another modest opponent, Andreas Seppi, awaits in the second round, and then Agassi will have to play much better against Rafael Nadal, who defeated Alex Bogdanovic, 6-4, 7-6(3), 6-4 despite a patchy performance.Asked if Nadal might ever win this title, Agassi said that the two-time defending French Open champion might one day will himself to victory.

“We’ve seen what I never thought would be broken in all those matches on clay, the kind of strength that takes mentally and in your heart, it’s incredible,” Agassi said. “If there’s somebody that can do it, it can be him.”

There’s no doubt that Roger Federer can do it,as he has proven the last three years.Yesterday he finished off his raindelayed contest against Richard Gasquet, a talented shot-maker who ran into a champion playing one of his best first-round matches here.

Federer hit 35 winners, including 15 on volleys, and made 13 errors. He won 21 of 25 points at the net.The score was 6-3, 6-2, 6-2, and frankly, it looked more lopsided than the numbers suggested. Another figure stands out: 42, now the longest ever string of grass-court victories, though Federer said Bjorn Borg’s streak of 41 was more impressive, as it happened only at Wimbledon over the course of six years, including five consecutive titles.

“The five Wimbledons and the sixth final is something beyond almost possibilities for any player,” Federer said. “So for me, obviously, he stays a hero.”

Agassi, Nadal, and Federer played just three of the 96 matches Wimbledon had hoped to complete yesterday after the opening Monday gave way to rain (many were rescheduled, including Andy Roddick’s match).

Playing to a supportive crowd on Court 18, James Blake played explosive tennis at times against Kristian Pless of Denmark, winning 6-3, 7-5, 5-7, 6-4.

Though he has never fared well on grass until his recent run to the finals at Queen’s Club, Blake ought to be able to flourish here if he plays more consistently. Few players can attack a second serve with such ferocity, and his movement and quickness are rivaled by only Nadal, Federer, and Gael Monfils. Blake volleyed quite well yesterday, finishing with 25 points won at net in 34 chances, but he needs to serve better; he won’t so easily overcome nine double faults next time (though his 11 aces were a plus).His firstserve rate ended at a meager 51%.

Blake also might consider talking to himself a little less, or at least a little more kindly.He is always a gentleman on court, often praising his opponents for passing shots or stunning volleys.But he’s a perfectionist, too, and seemingly inconsequential mistakes aggravate him.Serving at 6-5 in the second set, Blake opened the game with a double fault. “Yep, great start,” he said, looking disgusted. (He had no reason to fret after rattling off three straight aces.) Earlier, he shouted “James!” and “Think!” after missing shots that were none too simple. Players more formidable than Pless might better exploit this habit.

For Blake, there is time. His most difficult opponent on the way to the quarterfinals might be former finalist Mark Philippoussis,who served 39 aces against Paul-Henri Mathieu in a 5-7, 7-6(5), 6-3, 7-6(12) victory. Wimbledon gave Philippoussis a wildcard this year,and he might make a killing on the investment if he continues to serve well.

The most stylish performance of the afternoon was turned in by Andy Murray, the 19-year-old Scotsman playing his second Wimbledon in front of an anxious British crowd hoping for someone to replace the declining Tim Henman as the hometown hero.

What Murray lacks in physical conditioning – recent commentary on the BBC noted that his nickname, while training in Spain, was “Lazy English” – he makes up for in touch, tactics, and intensity. Few players his age exhibit such mastery of drop shots, slices, and rolling topspin forehands, while also possessing a decent serve, an excellent return, and power from the baseline. Murray also has fine hands, if sometimes sloppy technique, at the net. Everything worked well for him yesterday in a 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 win over Nicolas Massu. Given a few years and proper dedication (and a coach,which he now lacks), he should do the homeland proud.

Henman lived up to his fans’ expectations, downing Robin Soderling 6-7(8), 6-3, 6-2, 1-6, 6-3. Unfortunately, he’ll likely meet expectations in the next round, too, when he faces Federer today.

“It feels really good to be playing a match here at Wimbledon with really very limited, very little pressure,” Henman said.

Say one thing for Tim, he speaks the truth.

Wimbledon Notebook

BELGIAN BOMBERS After crashing out in the first round of Wimbledon last year, Justine Henin-Hardenne looked first rate yesterday, defeating China’s Meng Yuan 6-0, 6-1. Kim Clijsters dispatched a difficult first-round opponent, Vera Zvonareva, 7-5, 6-3.

SWISS CHEESE She thrashed Olga Savchuk 6-2, 6-2, and then Martina Hingis offered one of her trademark tongue lashings: “I do not respect many of the coaches who are out there,” she said. “They don’t teach the girls the right things.”

FED CUP PREVIEW? Jamea Jackson, the top player on America’s Federation Cup team now that Venus Williams has decided to skip the upcoming contest with Belgium, came back to defeat Belgian Kirsten Flipkens 4-6, 6-4, 6-1.

TALL MAN, SHORT STAY Ivo Karlovic, the 6-foot-10 Croat, threw down 35 aces against Stanislas Wawrinka, but lost in five sets. 7-6(5), 3-6, 6-2, 6-7(8), 11-9.

WORLD CUP FEVER Rafael Nadal raced into his post-match press conference early yesterday evening, saying, “So we going to have the fastest press conference ever today.” Nadal loves his soccer, and Spain was tied with France 1-1 at halftime in the World Cup when he sped off.

SEEDS RAKED Young French talent Gael Monfils played timidly in a first-round loss to Igor Kunitsyn. He was one of nine seeds to lose yesterday. The others were Thomas Johansson (12), Dominik Hrbaty (20), Paradorn Srichaphan (29), Nicolas Massu (31) Paul-Henri Mathieu (32), Anna-Lena Groenefeld (13), Maria Kirilenko, and Sofia Arvidsson (28).

The New York Sun

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