PARIS -- ''Conventional'' probably isn't the first word you would choose to describe Andre Agassi.
So it shouldn't surprise anyone that after winning one key French Open tuneup he decided to skip another, swallow a $40,000 fine and make an extra trip back to the United States before heading to Paris.
Nor should it shock anyone that at the advanced-for-tennis age of 32, Agassi seems poised to make a strong run at an eighth major title when play starts Monday at the French Open. And he likes his chances.
''I find that as I get older, it gets more difficult, which increases the challenge of it,'' he says, ''which fuels the very thing that motivated me in the first place.''
Having dropped below No. 100 in the ATP Tour rankings in 1997, Agassi's career renaissance started at the '99 French Open, when he began a run of four championships in a span of eight Grand Slam events.
Now he's ranked No. 4, and nobody has been playing better tennis of late. Smacking balls over the net during a practice session at Roland Garros, Agassi looked little like the brash kid who made the French Open semifinals at the age of 18 and the final at 20 and 21.
Back then, his ''Image is Everything'' days: streaks of blond in below-the-shoulders hair, Day-Glo pink cycling tights, dangling earring.
Now, his ''Father Knows Best'' days: shaved pate, monochromatic T-shirt and shorts, hoop earring (OK, so not everything has changed completely).
In 1990, the year Agassi reached his first Grand Slam final here, a 14-year-old Jennifer Capriati became the youngest French Open semifinalist. Like Agassi, of course, Capriati knows a thing or two about comebacks.
The defending French Open champion is one of a handful of players with a realistic chance at the women's title, including the Williams sisters and Belgians Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters. Of those five players, only Capriati has won the French Open.
Martina Hingis, who's won every major except this one, and Lindsay Davenport are injured.
''I'm definitely playing better than last year,'' said Capriati, who has won three of the past five majors (Venus Williams took the other two). ''At the French, I was playing really well, and I don't know if I could play better than that. I think every year or every (tournament) I get better and better and stronger.''
Agassi's play has been superb since he returned from an early season wrist injury that forced him out of the Australian Open. He's won 24 of 27 matches and three titles in 2002, including the Rome Masters Series event this month, his first championship on clay since the '99 French Open.
''You come here and you're just hoping to get your clay feet, you know, and get used to it and hopefully get some confidence going and be ready by Paris,'' Agassi said before facing Haas. ''To be playing this well this early is a great bonus for me.''
Feeling he was ready for Roland Garros, he bypassed the Masters Series event in Germany the following week and returned home instead.
Still, it's tough to pick a winner when men's tennis is so wide open: 11 of 16 seeded players were gone by the second round in Rome; the top five seeded players were eliminated halfway through the second round at the Australian Open, something that had never happened at a Grand Slam event. Plus, the French Open traditionally has a deep field of clay-court specialists. Cases could be made for about a dozen men who could win.
Ask Gustavo Kuerten to pick a favorite, and he sounds as if he's going to come up with a dozen names.
''From what I've seen, Juan Carlos Ferrero will be the favorite. He played fantastically at Monte Carlo. Carlos Moya is also back. Gaston Gaudio won back to back in Barcelona and Mallorca. He's just realized he could be among the best clay-court players in the world,'' Kuerten says.
''And don't forget Agassi, after what he did in Rome.''
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