- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2003

PARIS — Andre Agassi has this Grand Slam thing down pat.

No victories on European clay this year? That’s OK.

One tournament match in a month? Fine.

Oldest man in the draw? Ho hum.

He concentrates on fitness, then gets to town and goes to work, adjusting to the vagaries of the surface, balls and weather. Yesterday, Agassi began constructing what he hopes will become his ninth major title, beating Karol Beck of Slovakia 6-2, 6-3, 6-3 at the French Open.

“I could come in here with more clay matches and sort of be in the grind and find myself plateauing off,” the second-seeded Agassi said. “I’d rather come in and sort of struggle to find a bit of a groove, but know that once I do, I’m ready to shift the gear and have some bigger upside later in the tournament.”

Right now, no one knows more about being in a groove at majors than Serena Williams, whose 29th straight Grand Slam match win came yesterday against Barbara Rittner, 6-2, 6-1. Williams is aiming for her fifth straight major title, something last accomplished in 1988-89 by Steffi Graf — now Agassi’s wife.

Rittner, a 14-year tour veteran, said Graf is the only woman she’s played who dominated an opponent the way Williams does.

Williams “makes you feel like you have no influence on the game,” Rittner said.

“Players generally believe that I’m the player to beat in any tournament, especially in Slams, because I kick it up to a new level physically and mentally,” Williams said. “This is what I play tennis for, mostly: to be remembered.”

It was a rather mundane opening day at Roland Garros, without one truly stunning result.

Sure, there were upsets on paper, with five of 32 seeded players out: No.5 Roger Federer, No.10 Paradorn Srichaphan and No.16 Alex Corretja among the men; No.27 Alexandra Stevenson and No.29 Elena Likhovtseva among the women. But Federer, for example, lost in the first round at three of five French Opens, Srichaphan went 1-5 recently on clay, and Stevenson is 4-15 at majors since making the 1999 Wimbledon semifinals.

Justine Henin-Hardenne, Amelie Mauresmo and Chanda Rubin won, as did lower-seeded Americans Lisa Raymond, Laura Granville and Meghann Shaughnessy, who outlasted Svetlana Kuznetsova 11-9 in the third set.

As temperatures reached the high 60s, No.24 James Blake beat fellow American Taylor Dent to reach the second round, joined by past French Open champions Carlos Moya and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and the man Agassi beat in the Australian Open final, Rainer Schuettler.

Playing today are defending champion Albert Costa, No.1 Lleyton Hewitt, 2001 women’s champion Jennifer Capriati and Venus Williams.

The Williams sisters practiced on center court 1 hours before Serena’s match there yesterday, swapping strokes where they met for the 2002 title. “It was really fun to be back out where all the magic began,” Serena said.

Against Rittner, she needed to save three break points to avoid a 2-0 hole. Williams made 10 unforced errors in the first three games — 14 the rest of the way.

Adding a new wrinkle, Williams won 13 of 16 points on which she approached the net.

“I feel like I’m going to make my volley every time,” she said.

Agassi built his career at the baseline and laced 10 forehand winners yesterday.

“I feel a lot younger on the court than I do off the court,” Agassi said. “When I’m out there on the court, I feel good. When I’m off the court, and I’m carrying around my little baby, and I’m pulling hair out of my ear, I feel old.”

His next foe is Mario Ancic, a 19-year-old Croatian whose mentor is Goran Ivanisevic. Ancic, who surprised Federer at Wimbledon, advanced yesterday when former No.1 Marcelo Rios quit in the second set, citing a sore arm.

Agassi said the balls are the heaviest he’s seen at Roland Garros, which could slow play and lead to longer matches. Beck, ranked 73rd, tried all sort of things, including about a dozen drop shots, but nothing was going to extend this match.

“It’s hard to play him,” Beck said. “He plays really fast, so he’s dangerous on clay.”

It didn’t look that way in early May at the Italian Open, where Agassi arrived with the No.1 ranking — the oldest to hold that spot. He immediately dropped to No.2 by losing in the first round to David Ferrer, a Spaniard so anonymous Agassi wasn’t sure how to pronounce his name yesterday.

After that defeat in Rome, Agassi returned to Las Vegas to train. He went to the gym, ran hills, hit balls.

“I felt like I needed to put in a lot of work with my legs and my lungs and come here sort of jumping out of my shoes,” said Agassi, 24-2 with four titles this year. “I feel pretty experienced in my preparation and as ready, if not more ready, than ever.”

Now he can funnel his energy into trying to replicate his 1999 French Open singles title. Plans to team with Graf in mixed doubles were scrapped because she’s pregnant with their second child.

“It’s amazing, the lengths she’ll go to not to play,” Agassi said with a smile.

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