The Times January 05, 2006
Frail Agassi is forced into painful decision
By Neil Harman, Tennis Correspondent
ANDRE AGASSI has almost certainly played competitive tennis for the last time in the country where success came to him more freely than anywhere. Agassi, 35, announces today that he will not play in the Australian Open, further indication that the wear and tear of the sport bears a heavy burden.
Agassi says that he is less than 100 per cent and therefore cannot give a proper account of himself. The four-times champion in Melbourne — he reached two further semi-finals — has not moved freely since spraining his right ankle in a freak injury picked up playing racketball when passing the time before the Masters Cup in Shanghai in November.
When Agassi showed up in China and gave what his aching body would allow, he was beaten in straight sets by Nikolay Davydenko, of Russia, and criticised by the organisers for telling the media that he had decided to withdraw before informing the tournament. The American may not have got the protocol absolutely right, but at least he showed when he knew he was struggling. He will not make that mistake again.
“Nobody wants to see me go on the court like that,” Agassi said after that defeat. “It’s dangerous and risky for the future as well, because I’m scared of hurting myself even more. I try to make decisions that keep me healthier because of the physicality of the game now.”
As fanatical as Agassi trains and as desperately as he wants to compete, there comes a time when even he has to say no. He played only 51 matches in 2005 but had his fair share of success, reaching the final of the US Open, in which he lost to the mercurial Roger Federer. He also made the final of the Masters Series event in Canada and the semi-finals in Rome.
It was on the red clay that he began to be troubled by the sciatic nerve problem that reduced him to a passenger in the first round of the French Open — where he lost to Jarkko Nieminen, of Finland — and forced his withdrawal from Wimbledon.
The Australians will be desperately disappointed when Agassi’s decision is made public today, and more so when Rafael Nadal, the Spanish world No 2 who was unable to play in the Masters Cup despite making the long trek to Shanghai, announces his withdrawal from next week’s Medibank tournament in Sydney, a decision that puts his participation in the Open in serious doubt.
If Agassi’s loss is not entirely unexpected, Nadal’s would be a bitter pill. The 19-year-old from Majorca proved himself one of the great big-match players last year, winning the same number of titles — 11 — as Federer and breaking through to his first grand-slam triumph, at Roland Garros. But he has been troubled by foot and knee problems since pushing himself to the limit to win the Masters Series title in Madrid in October, when, with the benefit of hindsight, he should have rested.
His possible loss only confirms the absurdity of an 11-month season, the start of which this week meant that players travelled to India, the Middle East and Australia in search of match practice before the first grand-slam of the year, starting in Melbourne on Monday week.
Tim Henman would have preferred more than two matches before that, but a second-round defeat by Tommy Haas, of Germany, in Doha yesterday means that a paucity of competition may be assuaged only by a call to replace Agassi in the eight-man Kooyong Classic from Wednesday.
Henman lost 6-2, 7-6, saving seven match points in the process, but did not look as at ease with his game as he had during his opening-round victory over Richard Gasquet, of France.
It will have lifted a few spirits, however, to see Federer requiring two tie-breaks to defeat Fabrice Santoro, the veteran French bamboozler, but, as usual, the Swiss won.