Injured Agassi ousted

Pain shoots down his back and leg, sparking questions about the aging star's uncertain future.

Associated Press
Published May 25, 2005

PARIS - His back rigid, his feet shuffling, his face contorted from a burning pain in his leg, Andre Agassi arrived at a crisis in his career.

His future in tennis hinges not so much on his age, 35, as on the inflamed sciatic nerve that flared up and rendered him helpless in the middle of his first-round match at the French Open. It's the kind of chronic injury that has sent other champions into retirement, and it could ultimately do that to Agassi, even if he's not ready to walk away.

He has fought that pain for months, seeking relief from cortisone, but he felt it come back with a vengeance Tuesday when it radiated from his lower back to his right hip and down to his ankle.

Groundstrokes hurt. Serves hurt more.

Agassi considered quitting the match when he led two sets to one, but he grimaced and played to the end, eventually succumbing in five sets to No. 95-ranked qualifier Jarkko Nieminen.

"It was getting worse by the minute," Agassi said of the pain that struck in the third set of his 7-5, 4-6, 6-7 (8-6), 6-1, 6-0 loss. "I knew it wasn't going to be pretty after that. But I didn't want to walk off. I just didn't want to do it. And there's nothing the trainer could do.

"I almost shook hands at two sets to one up because to serve was painful, to move, to stand, then even to sit. It gets more irritated, more inflamed, more stiff. It was getting worse and worse. It was hard to stay out there."

Agassi never called for a trainer. He popped a couple of Advils and hoped for the best. He had a cortisone injection in his back a few months ago to reduce the inflammation and calm the nerve. That helped for a while, allowing him to play without much pain in Rome and Hamburg.

Week by week, though, Agassi could feel the effects of the cortisone wearing off. The pain came back in spurts, jabbing his hip and leg.

"When I go home in the evening, and I'm walking three blocks from the restaurant, you wouldn't guess I'm a professional athlete," said Agassi, who set an Open-era record by playing in his 58th major event. He won the French Open in 1999 to complete a career Grand Slam but has lost in the first round two straight years.

Three-time French champion Gustavo Kuerten, who has struggled with hip trouble for years, also was knocked out in the first round. Unseeded and the winner of only two matches this year, Kuerten fell to David Sanchez 6-3, 6-0, 4-6, 6-1.

A third former French champion, Albert Costa, lost to American Vince Spadea. No. 2-seeded Andy Roddick and No. 3 Marat Safin advanced.

But the question of the day was, where does Agassi go from here. Wimbledon? Agassi, who won his only title there in 1992, tried to be optimistic.

"I think I have high hopes with another injection," he said.

Retirement is a consideration if the pain doesn't allow him to play as a contender, he suggested.

"Well, it's what I do ... until I don't do it anymore," he said when asked why he's still playing. "It's given me a lot. I'll assess the necessary components at the end of the year."

WOMEN: It was a day of survival for two of the highest profile players, and it could easily have ended in double defeats.

While favorite Justine Henin-Hardenne was coming perilously close to blowing a 5-1 lead in the third set to Conchita Martinez on the stadium court, Maria Sharapova was trading shrieks with Evgenia Linetskaya on the Suzanne Lenglen court and rallying from a set down and then a break down in the third to win.

"It was just one of those days where you just go up to the line and you feel you're not serving your best," said Sharapova, who hit consecutive double faults from deuce in the final set before breaking back and winning 6-7 (7-3), 6-2, 6-4 to go into the second round against wild card Aravane Rezai.

The only consistency in the Russian's game was the shrill screaming that accompanied virtually every shot she hit. Seeded second, Sharapova, who lives in Bradenton, doesn't have a classic clay-court game, but she has one more round to tune up her flat ground strokes before probably running into dangerous newcomer Anna Chadvetadze, who also is Russian.

No. 10 seed Henin-Hardenne needed only 19 minutes to win the opening set in what appeared to be a breezy route to her 18th consecutive win, all on clay. But Martinez made an abrupt about-face and the little Belgian had to hang on to win 6-0, 4-6, 6-4.