Kucera blisters Agassi, knocks him out of French

Foot woes hamper defending champion

June 02, 2000|By THE NEW YORK TIMES

PARIS - On tour, they call Karol Kucera "Little Cat," and down the stretch yesterday at the French Open, Andre Agassi looked as defenseless as a goldfish in a bowl.

For Agassi, there will be no repeat of last year's emotional journey at Roland Garros. No theatrical bows and blown kisses to all corners of the court. No hands clutching the head in stunned delight. No communion with the Parisian public.

Agassi turned escape into an art form here on his way to the 1999 title, but this year it was Kucera's turn to twist free of the ropes, winning, 2-6, 7-5, 6-1, 6-0, in the second round and sending a shock wave through the refurbished center court where Agassi and Steffi Graf became champions last year, before they became an item.

The loss ends his run of four consecutive Grand Slam finals, a feat last achieved by Rod Laver in 1969. Agassi was trying to become the first man to win consecutive French Open titles at Roland Garros since Sergi Bruguera in 1993-1994.

It has been a terrible first week for U.S. tennis stars: No. 2 men's seed Pete Sampras and No. 2 women's seed Lindsay Davenport were beaten in the first round. Top-seeded Agassi, winner of three of the past four Grand Slam events, made it only one round further, and like Davenport, part of the explanation was a physical problem. In Davenport's case, it was a wrenched back; in Agassi's case, a blister on his right foot.

Agassi served for a two-set lead at 5-4 in the second set, but at 15-15, he dumped an ill-advised and poorly struck drop shot into the net. He then got the worst of a cross-court forehand exchange with Kucera and then, on the next point, missed a backhand passing shot to lose his serve and his edge. Kucera soon broke his serve again - with Agassi making unforced errors on the final two points - to even the match at one set apiece. "That gave me a lot of confidence," Kucera said. "He had the whole match in his hands, and suddenly it's one set all."

After Kucera jumped out to a 4-1 lead in the third set, Agassi returned to his chair, pulled off his right shoe and sock and summoned trainer Per Bastholt. Agassi said that a blister had started bothering him late in the second set.

Bastholt wrapped Agassi's big toe and treated the sole of his foot, where a new blister was developing. But while Agassi returned to the court, he would not win another game, losing 11 in a row in total, as Kucera confidently smacked ground strokes to the corners and Agassi proved incapable of keeping up. Agassi then proved incapable of bringing himself to answer questions from the media.

Yesterday's loss did have a precedent. Kucera, a fluid, 26-year-old counterpuncher from Slovakia with a great running forehand, had a 2-2 record against Agassi coming into the match and beat him in a testy fourth-round match at the U.S. Open in 1997, in which Agassi mocked Kucera's habit of catching his service toss.

With Agassi out, Michael Chang is the only U.S. man to reach the third round. Anna Kournikova, the No. 14 women's seed, was eliminated, if not necessarily upset, by Sylvia Plischke of Austria, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3.

NOTE: Austria's Stefan Koubek was disqualified from his second-round match after throwing his racket accidentally at a ballboy.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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