Agassi learns to keep busy
April 5, 2005
Ten months after one of the worst scheduling decisions of his 18-year career, Andre Agassi has rethought his attack on the clay-court season and will go after the French Open this year more aggressively than he has since 2001.
He'll go to Houston (April 18-24), take a week off and then play the back-to-back Masters Series events at Rome (May 2-8) and Hamburg (May 9-15). That gives him three tournaments, which should be adequate match play, while still giving himself at least seven days of rest before the start of the French.
This will be one more event than he played in 2002 and 2003 and a major departure from the crazy plan he put together in 2004, when he decided to take off almost the entire spring and play the smaller tournament at St. Poelten, Austria, one week before Roland Garros.
The idea was to work hard off court, get some matches in Austria and arrive in Paris with fresh legs and grooved strokes.
It was a lesson in humility that clay has a way of visiting on every player.
Agassi lost in the first round at St. Poelten to doubles specialist Nenad Zimonjic and walked into the French almost cold turkey, where he was beaten in straight sets by a French qualifier, Jerome Haehnel, who was ranked No. 271 and playing his first ATP level match.
"It was a terrible call I made. I mean, I was beside myself," Agassi said. "I'm not the kind of player that does well without matches. I can do well without practice. I can't do well without matches. I need to get relaxed out there and remind myself how hard I work to make it seem easy at times.
"It's not easy for me to remember that when I've been away for six weeks."
Twenty-four days before his 35th birthday, Agassi remains one of the phenomena of sport. There is no more grueling Grand Slam than the French, which is, as much as anything, a test of endurance.
But Agassi isn't worried about the effect a stepped-up clay schedule will have on his legs.
"My legs are treating me well right now," he said. "I don't have an issue with that. My back is better. My hip, as a result of that nerve they found, is better.
"I got it treated. I'm able to lunge, to sprint to balls and recover and force myself to play to my standard. That's a good sign. So I'm not worried about my legs. I'd be more worried about what I need mentally right now just to feel prepared."
The clay court season began in Valencia, Spain, on Monday, and Rafael Nadal, who lost a five-set, 3-hour and 47-minute final to Roger Federer at Key Biscayne, is not looking for time off. He'll play Juan Carlos Ferrero, the 2003 French winner, in the first round.
What Nadal has shown this year, and especially at Key Biscayne (even though it's a hardcourt tournament), is that he rates the early favorite's role to win the French.
This is going to be an extremely competitive clay court season with a dozen key players looking for the mental edge that comes with a title in a lead-up tournament, and all of them trying to make sure they play enough but not too much.
If I had to line up the five top clay court players right now, it would be, in order, Nadal, Agassi, Federer, Guillermo Coria and Juan Carlos Ferrero.
Why is Coria, last year's runner-up, fourth on the list? Maybe he'll magically transform himself now that he's on clay, but he hasn't played at an elite level since June.
Why is Federer third, when he's gone out in the first round twice and third round once in the last three seasons? Because we all know he has the game to win on clay and he couldn't possibly have a higher confidence level than he does now.
Why is Ferrero on that list? His game is coming. He showed at Key Biscayne that he's not far off in his return for injury. The speed is there, but he needs the consistency that he will get with match play.
And where is Gaston Gaudio, last year's accidental French Open winner, and Carlos Moya, David Nalbandian and Lleyton Hewitt? Close behind but not top five.
Nadal will turn 19 on June 3, the day of the men's semifinals in Paris. I think his celebration, and another one on June 5, will take place on the red clay at Roland Garros.
Charles Bricker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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