Agassi found answers in Cincinnati

Beating Moya, Roddick, Hewitt en route to title restored his confidence


August 17, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A week ago, Andre Agassi walked onto the court in Cincinnati for his first match in that city's Masters' Series tournament and his brain was alive with questions.

Why had he lost in the round of 32 the week before? Why had he won the match before that? Why wasn't he able to string back-to-back wins together?

"I had every bit as many questions as anyone else," said Agassi, who will begin play as the No. 1 seed in the Legg Mason Tennis Classic tonight against Rockville's Paul Goldstein, a wild-card entry.

He was questioning the very basics of his game, his shot selection and his decision making. And he was asking himself a bigger question, too.

"Are you ever going to feel the freedom to really let your game go?" he said yesterday. "Where you get stuck in the rut is not playing your best tennis on the most important points."

In Cincinnati, Agassi swung away and won his first tournament in 15 1/2 months. And he did it by beating increasingly tougher opponents. In his last three matches, he ousted Carlos Moya, Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt -- all former world No. 1 players.

Hewitt, the No. 2 seed here, defeated Kenneth Carlsen, 6-1, 6-2, last night and advanced to the second round.

In the afternoon, Sjeng Schalken, a 2001 Legg Mason finalist and the No. 3 seed in this tournament, retired in the second set of his match against No. 162-ranked Gilles Muller. Schalken was behind 6-1, 0-1 at the time.

It was the third time in four tournaments Schalken has either retired or withdrawn prior to a tournament.

Todd Martin, who has given fans much joy over the years by digging in his heels and playing stubborn tennis, did it again yesterday, forcing three tie-breakers before losing, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (3), 7-6 (5), to Raemon Sluiter.

And last night, No. 4 Robby Ginepri advanced with a 7-6 (4), 4-6, 6-3 win over 2000 champion Alex Corretja

Earlier this season, Agassi was bothered by a hip injury, but said here he has been over it for the past six to eight weeks and has been working hard and preparing well.

"I've been putting myself in position to win, but until last week I had nothing to show for it," he said. "It's confidence that has been a problem. And confidence is a problem. You can't win without it and you can't get it without winning.

"You have to take small victories from individual matches and build on that. But there is nothing like playing back-to-back matches and experiencing the physical and emotional requirement it takes to go through it."

That's why stringing six victories together was important, but that was only one reason among several.

By winning and becoming the oldest champion of an ATP Tour event since Jimmy Connors captured back-to-back tournaments in 1989 at 37, Agassi, 34, stopped the media talking about a pending retirement for him.

"I think I heard more people say that if things didn't go well for him this summer, that we'd see him think about the end of his career," said Martin, who at 34 is one of the last competitors left in Agassi's age group.

"But when there is that much talent, it's simply a matter of the right conditions and the right opponent on the right day. I don't think Andre will ever feel he's not good enough to compete against the best in the world."

But to compete well, Agassi said, he has to insinuate himself into the minds of the young, big-time opponents.

"All the tournaments I play are played in an effort to get ready for the U.S. Open," he said. "You want to try to be at your best for the biggest events. But if you don't assert yourself among the great players all along the year, it's hard to assert yourself at the big event. If you try to do that, you're counting on too many things happening.

"I think Cincinnati showed me if I let my game go that I can beat Moya, Roddick and Hewitt back-to-back. That's a pretty good lineup in anyone's book. Now, I just have to do it again."

With every passing day, he said, the game becomes more dear to him and more frustrating. The hard parts are harder and the good results sweeter.

"It's true," he said. "You realize what it means and that means to lose feels stronger and to win feels better. It all gets more intense."

And so, he is happy to be here at the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center to play in a tournament he has won five times and in an intimate setting in which he thrives.

But ask him if it is important or necessary for him to win this title in order to build on last week's success and he says no.

"I don't get beyond who I'm playing next," he said. "I'm not just saying that. It's truly the way it is. I do one match at a time and what I've got to do is create the standard of play, exercise my game and make someone play special tennis to beat me."

Men's singles, first round Gilles Muller, Luxembourg, def. Sjeng Schalken (3), Netherlands, 6-1, 0-1, retired. Raemon Sluiter, Netherlands, def. Todd Martin, United States, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (3), 7-6 (5). Lleyton Hewitt (2), Australia, def. Kenneth Carlsen, 6-1, 6-2. Robby Ginepri (4), United States, def. Alex Corretja, Spain, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 6-3. Alejandro Falla, Colombia, def. Justin Gimelstob, United States, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3. Dmitry Tursunov (8), Russia, def. Olivier Patience, France, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4.

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