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Old 01-16-2004, 05:08 PM   #13
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Default AGASSI STILL A THREAT

Agassi seeks strong start to season
Veteran bids for his fifth Australian Open title


Andre Agassi of the United States has celebrated winning the Australian Open four times in his career and his winning this major for a fifth time is a strong possibility, says Bud Collins of NBCSports.com.

By Bud Collins
Jan. 16, 2004

Out with the old, and in with the new? Will that be the theme of the initial major of this new tennis season, the 99-year-old Australian Championships on the mean green slabs of Melbourne Park? Could be. More on that as we look at the men to watch.

A VETERAN THREAT
The old champion and getting older –- yet nonetheless bolder -- by the minute is “Father Timely,” Andre Agassi, on the prowl for a fifth Aussie title to accompany those of 1995, 2000, 2001, 2003 in his racket bag.

Although he turns 34 in three months, Andre benefits from the fitness of a racehorse and more than half a lifetime of experience on the big league track.

I could see him winning the Aussie again and at last surpassing his spouse in at least one major phase.

Agassi's wife, Steffi Graf, won the Aussie four times: 1988, 1989, 1990 and 1994, and retains the family’s overall bragging rights when it comes to majors with her 22 singles titles to Andre’s eight.

“I think Andre can win another major,” says U.S. Davis Cup Captain Patrick McEnroe.

“And the Aussie is his best opportunity. Andre’s well rested, and obviously knows how to pace himself. He loves the extreme Australian summer heat.”

RODDICK WITH A GOAL
The fresher faces start with ramrodding American Andy Roddick, shooting from the hip and the No. 1 position.

Andy might have won the Aussie a year ago if he hadn’t injured his right wrist diving for a volley during that colossal quarterfinal win over Younes El Aynaoui, covering five hours, a saved match point, and climaxing in a 21-19 fifth set.

Andy had nothing left to combat Rainer Schuettler in the semis, and missed the chance to pressure Agassi more than Schuettler could.

For Roddick -- blending old and new years with an Aussie championship tied to his 2003 U.S. Open title –- would put him in rare, illustrious company.

The first American to do it was Californian Don Budge on his way to the original Grand Slam, which Don launched with the 1938 Aussie, having won the U.S. Open the previous September.

Fred Perry, the dashing Brit (the last known English male tennis player?) succeeded in turning the trick with the U.S. Open in 1933 and the Aussie in 1934.

Then, after World War II, came Aussie Roy Emerson, 1964-65; Pete Sampras, 1993-94, and 1996-97, followed by Agassi, 1994-95, and 1999-2000.

Can Roddick become the sixth in that select fraternity?

No surprise if he does.

A growing ability to capitalize on his groundies with more daring volleying could be the edge for a guy whose thundering serve and forehand are proven.

FEDERER WITH HURDLE TO CLEAR
There was almost unanimous agreement that Roger Federer was the planet’s finest at the close of the year as he brushed aside all opposition among the elite eight in Houston to seize the Masters.

Roger, though but 22, stocks everything in his arsenal.

The Wimbledon champ has created a style that seems a throwback to the more elegant days of shotmaking: backcourt solidity, serve-and-volley prowess, pinpoint serving -– all of it done with a seemingly effortless smoothness that is such a contrast to, say, the high-intensity slam-banging of Roddick.

But will Roger, never a factor in four previous shots at the Aussie, be haunted by his most recent appearance in Rod Laver Arena?

That was Switzerland’s Davis Cup semifinal against Australia when he folded before Lleyton Hewitt, even though leading 2-0 in sets and serving for the match in the third.

A NEW MISSION FOR THIS AUSSIE
Hewitt's my pick to walk away with this major.

This quivering young mass of relentless heart and legs is surely far better than his current No. 15 status.

Wasn’t he No. 1 in 2001 and 2002, winning the Masters both years?

He will be 23 in February, and his best accomplishments, I believe, are ahead.

He set his sights on the 2003 Davis Cup, and, that accomplished, Lleyton’s mission is to retrieve the Aussie Open title for his beloved homeland.

I feel that challenge will rekindle his flame-throwing personality.

Twenty-eight years have passed since an Aussie last wore the crown –- a lightning-striking almost anonymous Mark Edmondson coming through startlingly over the bodies of all-time Aussie greats Ken Rosewall and John Newcombe.

Hewitt probably got sidetracked in 2003 by his wacky lawsuit against the ATP, and –- pleasantly –- by his romance and engagement to Kim Clijsters.

Illness prevented a serious challenge in 2002.

Now I think he’s ready to restore an Australian luster to the winner’s circle.

OTHERS TAKING THEIR SHOT
Another Aussie with the same idea, the gargantuan Mark Philippoussis, has possibilities of bringing the title back to his hometown, Melbourne, where another townie, Patrick Cash, failed in the 1987 and 1988 finals.

Philippoussis, on his way to last summer's Wimbledon final, may have cost Agassi that title with his avalanche serving.

Carlos Moya has showed Melbourne a thing or two in bulling his way to the final in 1997, and illuminated Laver Arena with his volleying in beating Philippoussis during the recent Davis Cup final.

His Spanish teammate, Juan Carlos Ferrero, the French Open champ, has shown improvement on the hard stuff, beating Agassi to reach the U.S. Open final.

But he was a Davis Cup flop at the Laver venue, via five-set defeats to Hewitt and Philippoussis.

Don’t overlook Argentine David Nalbandian, Wimbledon finalist in 2002, and holder of a match point against Roddick in a U.S. Open semifinal.

Three-time French Open champ, Brazilian Guga Kuerten, could march a ways, gradually regaining his post-hip-surgery form and confidence.

But the best Argentine, Guillermo Coria, a U.S. Open quarterfinalist to Agassi, pulled up hors de combat days ago, withdrawing from the New Zealand Open with an abdominal strain.

Where’s Russia’s “Headless Horseman,” Marat Safin?

The guy who should have won in 2002, and casually blew the title bout to a considerably lesser Swede, Tom Johansson, is mired at No. 86.

He ought to be in the top five, but will Marat ever get his brain together to make a run for it again?

COUNT ON SOME SURPRISES
There will be early upsets, as always in a major.

Remember qualifier Ivo Karlovic of the Croation Karlovics booting champ Hewitt from Wimbledon’s starting gate?

I expect young Americans Mardy Fish and Taylor Dent to cause some damage.

Possibly James Blake and Robbie Ginepri will rise to the occasion.

Among the troublemakers will be Dutchman Martin Verkerk, Thai Paradorn Srichaphan, Belrus Max Mirnyi, Moroccan El Aynaoui, France’s Sebatien Grosjean and Arnaud Clement, the German Schuettler.

But the champ, in my mind, must come from this group of headbreakers: Agassi, Roddick, Federer, Philippoussis and Hewitt –- with Lleyton getting my nod.
__________________
"What kind of shape am I in now? Well round is a shape." said Roddick with a laugh. "I had a very detailed retirement plan, and I feel like I've met every aspect of it: a lot of golf, a lot of carbs, a lot of fried food, and some booze, occasionally — I've been completely committed ... The results have shown."


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