Agassi withdraws in Australia

Posted: Monday, January 14, 2002

MELBOURNE, Australia -- The Australian Open lost defending champion Andre Agassi to an injury and second-seeded Gustavo Kuerten to a five-set upset Monday (Sunday EST).

On the women's side, fifth-seeded Serena Williams withdrew with an ankle injury, and her sister, second-seeded Venus Williams, easily won her first-round match, 6-2, 6-2 over Ansley Cargill of the United States.

Venus, who has won back-to-back Wimbledon and U.S. Open championships, struggled just to reach the semifinals here last year.

''Right now, I think I have a lot more experience on my side, and I have confidence, so that's important going into a championship like this,'' Venus Williams said. ''I don't feel I was prepared as I'd like to be last year.''

Kuerten, the three-time French Open champion and former No. 1, lacked his usual zip and received treatment for upper leg pain in wasting a two-set lead and losing 3-6, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-3 to Julien Boutter of France, ranked No. 53.

Of Kuerten's 16 career singles titles, only three have come on hardcourts, the surface used for the year's first major tournament.

Kuerten never has gone beyond the second round here, but he looked in control for the first two sets. Then Boutter took advantage of the Brazilian's sluggishness, sending 91 winners by Kuerten to compensate for 50 unforced errors.

Agassi pulled out on the eve of the tournament with a wrist injury he described as potentially career-threatening.

''I'm worried about the state of it and what it might mean,'' Agassi said Monday. ''It was a decision I labored over. It's very rare in your career when you wouldn't want to be the defending champion, but this is one of them.''

He lost the chance to become just the second man ever to win three consecutive Australian Opens and the first since Roy Emerson won five in a row from 1963-67.

The 31-year-old Agassi, seeded third, informed Australian Open organizers late Sunday night that he was pulling out.

In other opening day matches, No. 9 Sandrine Testud lost to French countrywoman Nathalie Dechy 7-5, 4-6, 6-3, and Mary Pierce, the 1995 Australian Open champion but unseeded this year, suffered an abdominal strain and retired from her match against Jill Craybas of the United States after losing the first four games.

Also, No. 8 Monica Seles, a four-time Australian champion, beat Patty Schnyder of Switzerland 6-1, 6-2, while No. 15 Amanda Coetzer eliminated Miriam Oremans of the Netherlands 6-1, 6-1.

Without Agassi or Kuerten -- owners of a combined 10 Grand Slam tournament titles -- the men's draw is wide open, with No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt and 1999 champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov becoming favorites.

Kafelnikov, also the runner-up here in 2000, faced little more trouble than a nearly 1 1/2-hour rain delay Monday.

After waiting for the court to dry, he needed about that same amount of time to beat German qualifier Michael Kohlmann 6-3, 6-3, 6-2.

''I can't complain,'' the 27-year-old Russian said of his play. He predicted ''some major upsets'' in the next few days, adding, ''hopefully, it won't happen to me.''

In 2001, for the seventh time in eight years, Kafelnikov played more matches than any other player on the ATP tour -- 142 in singles and doubles. He reached the quarterfinals at the Australian and French Opens and the U.S. Open semifinals.

He was seeded No. 4 here, but now ranks behind only Hewitt, who starts play Tuesday against Spain's Alberto Martin in a tough half of the draw that includes Pete Sampras, Andy Roddick and Marat Safin.

Kafelnikov's side includes No. 5 Sebastien Grosjean, a semifinalist last year, who advanced with a 6-2, 2-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (2) victory over Spain's Juan Balcells, and No. 6 Tim Henman, a 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 winner over Australian wildcard entry Todd Larkham.

Also advancing were No. 12 Guillermo Canas, a 6-1, 6-1, 6-4 winner over Thailand's Paradorn Srichaphan, and 2001 quarterfinalist Dominik Hrbaty, who rallied to beat Germany's Lars Burgsmuller 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-5.

Agassi was scheduled to start here Tuesday, but hurt the wrist during the first set of a three-set loss to Pete Sampras in the final of an exhibition tournament Saturday. The match included two tiebreakers and was played in tough winds.

''I'm worried about the state of it and what it might mean'' for his career, the 31-year-old Agassi said an hour before the tournament began.

''The pain was bad and fairly familiar,'' he said, adding that trying to play through pain led to surgery on the wrist in 1993. He planned to return immediately to the United States for assessment and treatment.

Sunday night, he said, he had knots in his stomach when he called Open director Paul McNamee to arrange a session with the tournament doctor.

''It was a decision I labored over,'' Agassi said. ''It's very rare in your career when you wouldn't want to be the defending champion but this is one of them.''

His replacement in the draw was 20-year-old Irakli Labadze, who's ranked 104th.

Hewitt, voted the 2001 ATP Player of the Year, gives the home crowd hope for the first Australian winner here since Mark Edmondson in 1976.

At 20 years, 8 months, he was the youngest year-end No. 1 since the ATP rankings started in 1973.

He's recovering from chicken pox, although he won an exhibition match against Todd Martin on Friday.

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