Agassi out at Legg Mason

Final D.C. appearance ends with 1st-round loss to unheralded Stoppini

August 02, 2006|By SANDRA MCKEE | SANDRA MCKEE,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- A few days ago, Andre Agassi wondered when repetition turned into tradition. He has been coming to the Legg Mason Tennis Classic for 17 of his 20 pro seasons.

Over that time, he'd won five titles here, the only player ever to win that often. But along the way there have been hiccups. Early-round losses he'd rather forget. Last night his first-round match against qualifier Andrea Stoppini, a match he wanted to win desperately, was one of those he'd like to forget.

Down a set and having just lost a point to go down 3-0 in the second, Agassi the calm, mature master of his sport, lost his cool and hurled his racket so hard onto the hard court that its graphite head bent and curled in grotesque ugliness.

Which, as it turned out, was most representative of the match that went to Stoppini, 6-4, 6-3.

"Breaking a racket is not totally uncharacteristic for me," Agassi said later. "For me, breaking a racket has always meant caring about something you can't quite get over the hump with.

"With every point the court got smaller and smaller. ... I didn't know if I was going to hit the ball 6 feet long or into the bottom of the net and when I'm second-guessing that, the wheels are close to coming off."

And yet, when it was over and Stoppini, 26, had gently patted Agassi's back, the 36-year-old, who is on the road to his final tournament at the coming U.S. Open, stopped long enough to give his traditional bow to the fans, who were on their feet applauding.

"To do that was really hard," Agassi said. "The first thing you want to do after a match like that is race off the court and hide. But you can't get around that I have lived my life here. You can't get hung up on one difficult night. But it [the bowing] didn't come easy. I wanted more for them and for me."

The match started with an uncomfortable rhythm. Agassi never seemed in control of the ball, double-faulting on his serve and trying to control his ground strokes that seemed to have a mind of their own.

Stoppini played his way into the tournament by winning three qualifying matches and then won his first career Association of Tennis Professionals match shortly after midnight yesterday morning, beating Paul Goldstein.

Yesterday evening, he had a few jitters as he followed Agassi onto the William H.G. FitzGerald Center's center court.

"It was an unbelievable atmosphere," he said of the sellout crowd that was on its feet cheering. "The first two or three strokes I hit, I could not find the court. But after that, I played good."

Stoppini said the first time he saw Agassi play he was an 8- or 9-year-old watching him on television.

"He had more hair then," Stoppini said, with a smile. "To be here tonight and win, it's beautiful. To me, a dream. He is the story of this sport. He's won all four Grand Slams.

"I know Andre didn't play his best match. But what can I do? It is better for me."

Their match had been on serve until Agassi's serve at 4-5 on the first set. The No. 4 seed fell behind 0-40, saved three break points to reach deuce and then saved another one before finally hitting a backhand long to give Stoppini the first set.

Agassi didn't feel completely out of it at that point. But when he couldn't cash in two break points on Stoppini's serve in the first game of the second set and then was broken at 15-40 in the second game, his frustration was on the rise. When Stoppini held for 3-0, Agassi smashed the racket.

"When I had double break point in the first game of the second set and couldn't get it, I felt like if I slipped just a little bit it could be over," Agassi said. "It used to be as a young guy I could have the night of my life. Now, as an old guy, I can have the night of my life the other way.

"You know I still have work to do, but I go out there and you care about how you play, and you want to take it all in and it makes you stop grinding your gears. I hope that's the last match I play like that. I hope when I get to the U.S. Open, to the familiar sights and sounds of Arthur Ashe Court that something will kick in. But the hard part about my game right now is not knowing what to expect."

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

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