- The Washington Times - Monday, August 1, 2005

Just a few months ago, it appeared Andre Agassi’s career finally was winding down. An inflamed nerve in his lower back had led to an early exit at the French Open and forced him to skip Wimbledon.

Yet after an impressive run at a tournament in Los Angeles, Agassi is poised to make a run at his sixth Legg Mason Tennis Classic title this week in the District.

Agassi is the No.2 seed in the tournament, which begins today at William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center in Rock Creek Park. Like the other 15 seeded players, Agassi has a bye to the second round.

He probably could use the rest. Playing in his first tournament in two months, Agassi defeated Gilles Muller in the Mercedes-Benz Cup final yesterday.

It was a stirring return for the sport’s active elder statesman, and perhaps hinted the man with eight career Grand Slam titles would not go out quietly.

That fate certainly seemed possible earlier this year when a chronic sciatic nerve condition in his back hindered his play. Agassi had played with some effectiveness in the spring after taking a cortisone shot, but he lost to unheralded qualifier Jarkko Nieminen when his back pain flared up in the first round of the French Open.

He subsequently withdrew from Wimbledon, prompting questions of whether retirement is looming for the 35-year-old. His performance in Los Angeles, though, has sparked some hope Agassi could make a run at the U.S. Open later this summer.

“I don’t know what is going to go into my decision as far as how long I do this,” Agassi told the Los Angeles Daily News last week. “But I can tell you one thing: I don’t want to be on the court unless I’m at least engaged in letting my game fly and feeling good. Because if there’s one thing I learned in Paris, limping around in front of the world is not a comfortable thing to do.”

He was plenty comfortable throughout the week in Los Angeles, cementing his status as one of the favorites at the Legg Mason. Another is top-seeded Andy Roddick, who has won three titles this season and captured the U.S. Open two years ago. Roddick was the Legg Mason winner in 2001, and like Agassi is one of the most charismatic players in the game.

“Andre and Andy, they both have a presence on and off the court that people just seem to be really attracted to,” tournament director Jeff Newman said. “We’re fortunate and lucky they’ve been loyal to our event.”

However, the two star Americans aren’t the only attractions this week. If the bracket holds to form, Roddick could meet third-seeded Tim Henman in the semifinals. Also in that half of the draw is wild card Mark Philippoussis and Rockville native Paul Goldstein.

Agassi’s potential semifinal opponents include fourth-seeded Radek Stepanek and James Blake, the 2002 Legg Mason champ who is unseeded this year.

One new twist at FitzGerald Tennis Center will be the presence of blue courts. All of the events in the U.S. Open Series — six weeks of North American tournaments leading up to the U.S. Open, plus the Open itself — are using the blue courts.

“To the USTA’s credit, they’ve made a great effort to elevate the summer season as a cohesive package of events leading into the U.S. Open,” Newman said. “Not only is it player and fan friendly — it [allows] the spectators and players to be able to see the ball better — but as far as to be able to band ourselves with the U.S. Open, it certainly elevated the D.C. event and all the events this summer.”

Unlike past years, the Legg Mason also will incorporate a USTA Pro Circuit women’s event. That tournament’s 32-player singles main draw begins today.

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