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Agassi slips by in first round

Posted: Wednesday, June 28, 2000

WIMBLEDON, England -- Andre Agassi's eyes narrowed in a look of incredulity and annoyance as the threat of a second straight quick exit from a Grand Slam tournament stared him in the face.

Here he was pummeling balls that should have been winners, only to see them fly back past him off the racket of an acrobatic, adrenaline-pumped 19-year-old qualifier, Taylor Dent, in a first-set thrashing Tuesday that lasted 25 minutes.

They had come on Centre Court right after another young American, Jan-Michael Gambill, had posted the biggest upset so far at Wimbledon, a 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 first-round knockout of No. 7 Lleyton Hewitt. Three other seeded men, and six seeded women had also been dispatched in the first two days, and now Agassi had to wonder whether he would join them.

Agassi had expressed the fear that all his good fortune of the past year -- the French Open title, the runner-up finish at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and Australian championships -- might suddenly end. A blister on his big toe led to a second-round defeat at Roland Garros last month, and a strained back caused him pull out of a tuneup on grass two weeks ago.

Would the hot hand of a young upstart add to Agassi's misery? Not this time.

Broken to end the first set -- the last three points on a great forehand pass by Dent, an even better half-volley into the corner, and a lunging return down the line -- Agassi stared at Dent before bearing down to beat him.

A thunderous forehand return sent Dent sprawling and a backhand pass broke him to start the second set. Shot by shot, the ball coming off his racket cleaner and more crisply, Agassi wore Dent down, making him reach and run and dive for shots. A backhand by Agassi struck Dent in the chest as he slipped on the still-lush grass to fall behind 3-1. By the time Agassi broke him again for a 5-2 lead with a great return off a short hop into the corner, Dent was all but done. His chest was heaving with deep breaths while Agassi, 11 years older but in better shape, looked as if he could play for hours.

Agassi won the last 11 games before the match finally ended at 2-6, 6-3, 6-0, 4-0 when Dent retired with a strained right knee.

It was the fourth match of the day to be stopped by injury. Defending women's champion Lindsay Davenport advanced 6-3, 1-0 when her doubles partner, Corina Morariu, injured her left shoulder and elbow in a fall during their singles match.

''It's a very bittersweet way to win,'' Davenport said. ''Especially when it happens to a good friend, I mean, it's terrible. Hopefully, the prognosis is she can play again in a month.''

The injury likely will prevent Morariu and Davenport from defending the doubles titles they won last year. The two Americans were seeded second.

French Open runner-up Magnus Norman eased into the second round when Australia's Mark Woodforde quit in the third set. The third-seeded Swede led 6-4, 6-2, 2-0 when Woodforde retired with a back injury. It wasn't immediately known whether the injury would force him out of the doubles, where he and Todd Woodbridge are seeded No. 1.

Agassi, relieved that this time he was not the victim of an injury, knew he had escaped a tight spot.

''He was hitting some good, deep volleys, not even letting me get a look at getting a pass,'' Agassi said of the first set. ''The game he broke, he hit a couple winners, good chips deep inside the line which I couldn't do much with. Then at 2-5, I was still thinking, 'I want to see if he can really close out this set.' He really stepped it up, unleashed on a couple other shots.''

As impressed as Agassi was, he said it's difficult to say whether Dent, the son of former Australian player Phil Dent, will emerge as a great player.

''Taylor has a big game, no question about it,'' Agassi said. ''There's a lot you need to succeed out there. You serve 140 mph, it's quite an incredible feat. If you don't have the quickness to get in close behind that, you're going to be hitting a lot of volleys behind the service line.

''He would have probably done a bit better to take a little off that first serve, get in a little tighter, force me to really hit some low returns. Those are the little things that you learn as you go on, or don't, depending on which way you go. But he certainly has good athletic ability and a powerful game. He has a lot of room for improvement, which is a good sign.''

Gambill, 23, showed he might be ready for a move up in his career as he beat Hewitt, the 19-year-old Australian who was seen as a strong contender for Pete Sampras' title.

Hewitt beat Sampras in straight sets in the final of the Wimbledon warmup at Queen's Club. Sampras and other top players, had anointed the gritty Australian as the next big star.

But, in his first appearance on Centre Court, Hewitt came out flat, and Gambill outslugged him from the baseline.

It was the second big upset by an unheralded American in two days. On Monday, Vince Spadea snapped his tour-record 21-match losing streak by beating 14th-seeded Greg Rusedski in five sets.

''I was very pumped,'' Gambill said. ''I was excited to go out there and have a good battle. I played really well. I know he's a fiery player. I know how he's going to play. He's been great this whole year. He's just proved time and time again how fierce and tough a competitor he is. That's the way I want to be out there. This match means a lot for me confidence-wise.''

Gambill, of Colbert, Wash., came into Wimbledon with a career record of 7-11 in Grand Slam tournaments. Named after actor Jan-Michael Vincent, Gambill was known as much for his good looks as his game -- he was featured as one of People magazine's 50 most beautiful people this year.



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