Sunday, June 22, 2003

Older, wiser Agassi primed

At 33, he relishes another Wimbledon

The Associated Press

WIMBLEDON, England - There was a time when Andre Agassi could do without the All England Club, its traditions and, especially, its courts.

When he was too cool and too Technicolor to wear white, when he was unsure whether his gifted returns and baseline strokes would win on grass.

Not these days.

Agassi, one of five men with a career Grand Slam, realizes there might not be too many major tournaments in his future, so he focuses his efforts on preparing intensely for each one, Wimbledon included.

He'll be ranked No. 1 - at 33, the oldest to lead the ATP Tour - and seeded No. 2 behind defending champion Lleyton Hewitt when play begins Monday.

"I grab these moments a lot tighter than I used to," Agassi says.

"I don't have a lot of time left, regardless of how long I can stretch it. The question to me is not how long I have. It is where I stand now, and what my goals are - what I am still able to accomplish."

Hey, the guy even went out and played a grass-court tuneup at Queen's Club, reaching the semifinals before losing to eventual champion Andy Roddick.

In the past, Agassi usually skipped such events, coming cold to Wimbledon, where he won the first of his eight Grand Slam titles in 1992. He also was runner-up in 1999 to seven-time Wimbledon champion Pete Sampras, who has withdrawn from every tournament he entered this year and might never play again.

This will be the first Wimbledon since 1988 without Sampras. One without Agassi can't be too far off.

"I do believe that as you get older, you have a stronger ability to embrace the rare moments, and you become more aware of how rare they are," Agassi says. "To win Wimbledon again would be quite an incredible accomplishment for me."

The locals, of course, would rather see a first-time champion: Tim Henman, to be precise. Henman never fared as well at other majors as here - but his countrymen aren't concerned about other majors.

They want a British men's champion at Wimbledon to succeed Fred Perry in 1936.

How intense is the attention on Henman, a semifinalist four of the past five years? One front-page headline after Agassi and Sampras were upset in the second round last year: "No pressure Timbo, but choke now and we'll never forgive you."

"There's going to be a lot of pressure and expectation just like always on him, but he handles it as well as anyone," said Hewitt, who eliminated Henman in 2002. "What he's done making semifinals year after year is pretty impressive."

One would think Henman would break through, given the way men's tennis spreads the wealth. Names such as Johannson, Schuettler, Nalbandian and Verkerk dot the roster of recent major finalists.

In the past 10 Grand Slams, 15 men made at least one appearance in a final. Agassi leads with three; he and Hewitt are the only men with two major titles in that time.

In the same span, by contrast, just six women split the 20 finalist spots. And that's why discussion of potential Wimbledon champions tends to be limited to the Williams sisters and the Belgians who met in the French Open final: Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters.

The countrywomen met in the final of a Dutch grass-court tuneup event Saturday, and Clijsters claimed the title when Henin-Hardenne quit after injuring her left hand in a fall. Henin-Hardenne, who's right-handed, said she expects to play Wimbledon.

One Williams or the other has won the last three Wimbledons - top-seeded Serena last year; No. 4 Venus the previous two - and they could meet in another final.

Henin-Hardenne has beaten Serena Williams twice this season, including in the French Open semifinals. Venus, meanwhile, has just one title in 2003, after claiming 13 in the preceding two seasons.

Is one of the Williams' biggest edges - intimidation - disappearing?

"That aura of invincibility that they had after the Australian Open has definitely shrunk," Martina Navratilova says. "The other women have a lot more confidence in the ability to put a dent in there and maybe even win, not just hold their own."

That might be. But consider the sisters' combined match record this year: 54-7, an .885 winning percentage.

The sisters and other top women (including Jennifer Capriati and Lindsay Davenport) are content to slug from the baseline. So, too, are Agassi and Hewitt, the only male baseliners to win Wimbledon the past 20 years.

"If I need my volleys to come through for me to win a match," Agassi says, "then I'm hoping for a lot out there."

Through his seven matches at Wimbledon last year, Hewitt tried serve-and-volleying just once. He faulted.

Henman, though, is a true serve-and-volleyer, one of the few left in the sport. Roger Federer, who won his first title on grass last weekend, comes to net and could make a run at Wimbledon - if he gets past the first round.

Federer lost his opening match in three of four trips to Wimbledon. When he won, he upset Sampras and made the quarterfinals.

Roddick should contend, thanks to his serve (he tied his record of 149 mph last week) and a boost from teaming with Agassi's former coach, Brad Gilbert, after a first-round French Open exit.

"I'll be better prepared than I ever have been for Wimbledon," Roddick says. "I'm probably more confident than I ever have been."

Oddly, Agassi says a lack of self-assurance was why he avoided Wimbledon early in his career. After a 1987 first-round loss, he didn't return until 1991.

At the time, one of the justifications was his "Image is Everything" persona and bright outfits wouldn't fit in. Another was that the courts were better suited to grazing than groundstrokes.

"I didn't have any desire to be on the grass. I didn't feel like it was tennis," Agassi says. "I just didn't have a desire to come over and keep myself away for so long to play on a surface I was convinced I really couldn't do well on."

"I didn't want to make those adjustments and I wanted the time off, so I joked about the color and the white stuff," he says.

And these days?

Well, married and a father, Agassi wears white at all tournaments.

And he doesn't want for confidence.

"I always think I can win when I play," Agassi says. "No matter what surface I'm on, I think I can win."

Five men to watch

Lleyton Hewitt (1)

Age: 22

Country: Australia

2003 Match Record: 25-7

Major Titles: U.S. ('01), Wimbledon ('02)

Topspin: In 2002, he became just the second baseliner since 1983 to win the title at the All England Club. Now, he gets to play qualifiers in the first two rounds.

Andre Agassi (2)

Age: 33

Country: United States

2003 Match Record: 30-4

Major Titles: Wimbledon ('92), U.S. ('94, '99), Australian ('95, '00, '01, '03), French ('99)

Topspin: Never a big fan of grass courts.

Juan Carlos Ferrero (3)

Age: 23

Country: Spain

2003 Match Record: 40-7

Major Titles: French ('03)

Topspin: Said his goal is to reach No. 1.

Roger Federer (4)

Age: 21

Country: Switzerland

2003 Match Record: 41-8

Major Titles: None

Topspin: Only year he won a match at Wimbledon was 2001.

Andy Roddick (5)

Age: 20

Country: United States

2003 Match Record: 30-11

Major Titles: None

Topspin: Big serve could carry him at Wimbledon, as evidenced by his first grass-court title at Queen's Club.

Five women to watch

Serena Williams (1)

Age: 21

Country: United States

2003 Match Record: 34-3

Major Titles: Wimbledon ('02), U.S. ('99, '02), Australian ('03), French ('02)

Topspin: How will she respond to the end of her 33-match Grand Slam winning streak?

Kim Clijsters (2)

Age: 20

Country: Belgium

2003 Match Record: 47-7

Major Titles: None

Topspin: Has the power-based game to fare well on grass.

Justine Henin-Hardenne (3)

Age: 21

Country: Belgium

2003 Match Record: 39-6

Major Titles: French ('03)

Topspin: Claimed her first Grand Slam title at the French Open by beating Serena Williams in the semifinals, Clijsters in the final.

Venus Williams (4)

Age: 23

Country: United States

2003 Match Record: 20-4

Major Titles: U.S. ('00, '01), Wimbledon ('00, '01)

Topspin: With big strokes and fantastic court coverage, she's tough on grass.

Lindsay Davenport (5)

Age: 27

Country: United States.

2003 Match Record: 27-8

Major Titles: U.S. ('98), Wimbledon ('99), Australian ('00)

Topspin: If healthy, she could make a semifinal run with her powerful groundstrokes.

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