Originally created 05/27/98

Agassi's comeback sticks in French clay



PARIS -- Andre Agassi arrived at the French Open trim and tanned, riding the crest of a comeback. He left as a first-round loser with a sore shoulder and doubts about his immediate future.

Agassi, who injured his shoulder serving in the first set, had 82 unforced errors Tuesday while losing to an 18-year-old Russian making his Grand Slam debut.

He lost 5-7, 7-5, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 to Marat Safin, who is ranked 116th and had to win three qualifying matches just to make it into the French Open. Last month, Agassi beat Safin in straight sets in a Davis Cup match in Atlanta.

"Something is obviously inflamed," Agassi said, massaging an ice pack on his right shoulder. "Anything above my shoulder I started struggling with. I was letting those balls drop, trying to move him left, right, left, right. I just didn't close out the points."

Monica Seles, playing her first match since the death of her father two weeks ago, found solace on the comforting red clay of Roland Garros during a 6-0, 6-2 win over Annabel Ellwood.

Seles, a three-time French Open champion who emerged as a teen-age superstar in Paris eight years ago, is seeking refuge from her grief by playing tennis.

"It was just too tough for me to stay home," said Seles, at her father's side when he died May 14 in Sarasota, Fla., after a five-year battle with cancer. "I think it's just being away from the house, having so many memories in every corner."

The sixth-seeded Seles, whose career was interrupted for nearly 2 1/2 years when she was stabbed during a match in 1993 in Germany, said all she wants to do now is concentrate on tennis.

"My dad would love me to play," she said. "I just sometimes wish that these things didn't happen right now. I wish my dad could have seen the end of my career and a lot of other things."

The first round's biggest upset was pulled off by qualifier Mariano Zabaleta, who ousted second-seeded Petr Korda in a five-set struggle that lasted until 9:14 p.m. on a cool evening.

Korda, the Australian Open champion, rallied from a two-set deficit but tired in the final set and lost 6-0, 6-2, 3-6, 4-6, 6-3 to the 213th-ranked Zabaleta, who leaped for joy and changed into an Argentine soccer jersey to celebrate his shocking victory.

Among the women, No. 5 Amanda Coetzer was eliminated. Moving on the second round were No. 2 Lindsay Davenport, No. 4 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, No. 7 Conchita Martinez, No. 11 Mary Pierce, No. 14 Sandrine Testud and No. 15 Dominique Van Roost.

Unseeded Serena Williams won in her French Open debut, 6-2, 1-6, 6-4 over Canada's Jana Nejedly, to join her older sister, Venus, in the second round.

Men advancing included No. 4 Patrick Rafter, who rallied from two sets down to win a match that began Monday, No. 10 Richard Krajicek, No. 14 Alex Corretja and No. 16 Alberto Berasategui.

Defending champion Gustavo Kuerten, the eighth seed, lost just four games while advancing to a second-round match against Safin, who overpowered Agassi with his sharp groundstrokes.

Agassi, who has won every Grand Slam event except the French Open, had never lost in the first round at Roland Garros. He was the tournament's runner-up in 1990 and 1991.

Agassi dropped to No. 141 in the world last year, but lost 25 pounds while working his way back into shape in minor tournaments. He has won two tournaments this year while catapulting to No. 20 in the rankings.

He came into the match seeking his 500th professional victory, but struggled from the start. Agassi needed an hour to win the first set, then quickly dropped the next two sets.

Agassi rallied to capture the fourth set as Safin twice slammed his racket on the clay in frustration. But the 6-foot-4 Russian regained command in the final set as a light drizzle turned to rain. Agassi's coach, Brad Gilbert, huddled under a gray slicker and sighed in exasperation.

Safin hits the ball extremely close to the net, and has the quickness to cover plenty of ground on the soft clay.

"I never ran like I did today," said Safin, who was born in Moscow, lives in Valencia, Spain, and speaks English with a Spanish accent. "I was cramping the last two games. I couldn't run but I wanted to win."

Agassi, who had planned on a long run at the French Open, now is left trying to find a way to fill the next two weeks in Europe. If the shoulder heals quickly, he hopes to start preparing for the grass-court season that leads to Wimbledon.

Though he criticized himself for not being aggressive enough against Safin and finishing some points more quickly, Agassi said he was not about to slow the rallies to confuse his hard-hitting opponent.

"There's no way I'm going to ever start slicing somebody to try to beat them," he said. "I'd slap myself if I started doing that."