- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 25, 2004

PARIS — Four days before the start of the French Open, Andre Agassi was out on center court as dusk approached, hustling to get his game going on the dusty clay.

Agassi seemed frustrated: He cursed, he scolded himself. After one poor stroke, he pounded a ball into the last row of the upper deck. If there was a consolation, it was this: Hey, it’s only practice.

He was back on that court yesterday for his first-round match, and this time, each shoddy shot counted. And they just kept coming, adding up to one of the biggest upsets in Grand Slam history.

Agassi, the owner of eight major titles and ranked No.1 just last year, lost 6-4, 7-6 (4), 6-3 to France’s Jerome Haehnel, a career minor leaguer ranked 271st and making his tour debut after playing the qualifying rounds.

When it ended, Agassi gathered his two racket bags, slung a white warmup jacket over his shoulder, then shuffled off toward the locker room. He didn’t acknowledge the fans’ applause.

Was this their last chance to see the 34-year-old Agassi at the French Open?

“Hard to say. You want to come back, but you just don’t know,” the oldest man in the tournament said. “It’s a year away. That’s a long time for me right now. Chances get less every year, for sure.”

Word of his loss spread quickly across Roland Garros.

“It’s a shocking result. It shows every player’s as good as the top on any given day,” 27th-seeded Vince Spadea said after erasing nine match points against another French qualifier, Florent Serra, to win 7-5, 1-6, 4-6, 7-6 (7), 9-7.

Spadea, who trailed 5-1 in the fifth set, could have faced Agassi in the third round. Andy Roddick, a 7-6 (5), 6-4, 7-5 winner over Todd Martin, was slated to meet Agassi in the quarterfinals. Then again, Roddick probably wasn’t looking too far ahead, knowing he’d lost his first match at the French Open the past two years.

“It’s definitely nice to get a win here and not walk away from this place feeling disappointed after the first day,” said the second-seeded Roddick, whose record-setting serve loses some of its oomph on clay.

Agassi’s certainly not at the top of his game on the red surface, especially with merely one match on it all year — a loss last week to a qualifier ranked 339th. He limits his tennis travel these days, for fitness and for family time: He and wife Steffi Graf have two young children.

“At this stage of my career, I can’t go around grinding, trying to get in matches, at the risk of expending the energies I do have,” said Agassi, whose career record is 799-247, compared with Haehnel’s 1-0. “The difficulty is that you come out to clay, and if something’s a little bit off, people can exploit it.”

Still, yesterday’s result was stunning because of how lopsided it was, where and when it happened (Agassi’s earliest defeat at a major since 1998), and the opponent.

Of the 31 seeded players who completed matches, four others were eliminated, including 2003 Wimbledon finalist Mark Philippoussis, who lost to Luis Horna, a winner against Roger Federer in last year’s first round. Also out: No.16 Fernando Gonzalez, No.24 Jelena Dokic, and No.27 Eleni Daniilidou.

Defending champion Justine Henin-Hardenne, back after six weeks off with a viral infection, struggled a bit against Sandrine Testud before winning 6-4, 6-4. She trailed 2-0, double-faulted eight times — but made it to the second round.

Agassi would love to be able to say the same. He must have liked his chances against Haehnel (pronounced eh-NEL), who never had beaten anyone ranked higher than 190th in six years floating around low-level circuits.

With success elusive and money short, he considered quitting tennis this winter.

“For somebody like me, who has never been on the real circuit, it was amazing to play against him today,” said Haehnel, 23, who doesn’t have a coach and doesn’t travel much because he hates to fly. “He’s my favorite player.”

Haehnel was swinging freely from the start, and his looping follow-through on forehands sent his racket dangling over his left shoulder like a back-scratcher. Yet it was a sluggish Agassi who sprayed balls for 39 unforced errors, 21 more than Haehnel.

Tentative instead of dictating points, Agassi whiffed on a backhand when Haehnel’s shot skipped off the baseline. Later, when another shot found a line, Agassi looked up at coach Darren Cahill in the stands and shook his head, as if to say, “What’s going on here?”

Most surprising, perhaps, was that the best returner of his generation never found the measure of Haehnel’s pedestrian serve, waiting 11/2 hours for a break point.

“I don’t know what we just saw,” said Gil Reyes, Agassi’s conditioning coach and good friend. “We’re down the homestretch. All I can ask is that we don’t limp through the finish line.”


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