Seeds fall like nine-pins

NIRMAL SHEKAR

DAY ONE, Monday, January 14: At the Albany Hotel in South Yarra, a huge lob away from the picturesque spread of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Orlando Bernardi, the manager who with his innate sense of hospitality and kindness has endeared himself to customers over two decades, is on the job quite early.

Andre Agassi addressing the press at Como hotel in South Yarra. Agassi's pull-out was a big disappointment.-AP

His hotel is a particular favourite with the tennis crowd, and at 7 this morning, he has to accommodate some early arrivals. As busy as he is, Bernardi finds time to greet you as you pick up the morning newspapers from the front desk at the reception.

"Another year gone. Time flies, doesn't it," says Bernardi as he hands out a pair of newspapers featuring Andre Agassi prominently in their sports section.

"Three Slams and a baby!" screams a banner headline alongside a full page picture of Agassi. Reporters wax eloquent about the 31-year-old defending Australian Open champion's fitness, his commitment and skills and everybody seems to agree that he is a clear favourite to win his third straight title here this fortnight.

Little did any of these reporters know that even as their stories were being printed on Sunday night, Agassi had already made up his mind to withdraw from the championship after aggravating an old wrist injury.

Nor, for that matter, does your diarist know, while reading the newspapers early in the morning, that the champion has pulled out. It is only at 7.30 a.m. when a FM radio music channel interrupted its programme to hint at the possibility that Agassi may be a no-starter that I jump out of the chair as if touched by a live electric wire.

Frantic calls are made but even the ones that are normally the first to hear about these things - the reporters from the top news agencies such as Reuters, AP and AFP - have no clue except that a press conference has been scheduled with Agassi at the Como hotel in South Yarra at 9 a.m.

Agassi is deeply disappointed but doesn't show it. He says he first felt "a twinge" in his wrist during the Commonwealth Bank International final against Pete Sampras two days earlier. He had decided to give it time but the condition of his wrist has not improved.

"It was a decision laboured over for a day and a half," says Agassi, whose first title here came in 1995 before he won back to back championships the last two years. "But as a player and an athlete the biggest investment in life is your body and I have to think of that."

This would have been Agassi's first Grand Slam event as a father but, as it turns out, he is flying back today with wife Steffi Graf and son Jaden Gil to consult a surgeon in Las Vegas.

Alberto Martin made history, knocking out Lleyton Hewitt in the very first round. This is the first time, since 1968, that a top seed has been beaten in the first round of the Australian Open.-AP

"This is very disappointing and there is a long-term concern here," says Agassi. "At this age it does not take many weeks being away from the game for it to be career ending. The decision was tough but it was a pretty clear one."

Agassi first had a serious wrist injury in 1993. He played through that injury for a few months and ended up on the surgeon's table at the end of the season. Today, he is left hoping that it would not again require surgery, something that might well end his career.

"Surgery is always the last resort. My goal is to track down the best surgeon and get him to have a look at it," says the seven-time Grand Slam champion.

If Agassi's departure is a huge disappointment to him, Paul McNamee, the Tournament Director, puts on a pretty brave face. "My heart sank when Andre called me," says McNamee.

Perhaps it is such a huge shock that McNamee fails to react as a Tournament Director should. By 10 p.m. on Sunday, he is certain that Agassi was pulling out. But no announcement is made until early this morning.

Of course, the last thing that McNamee would have wanted was banner headlines on the first morning of the tournament screaming about the withdrawal of one of the tournament's top draw cards.

Serena Williams follows the Agassi route with an ankle injury, and so does former champion Mary Pierce with an abdominal strain after four games against Jill Craybas, but the fans and the tournament organisers are, predictably, much less concerned about the loss of the women's fifth seed and the former champion.

You can say as much about Gustavo Kuerten as well. The 2000 world champion from Brazil, a three-time French Open winner, has never got past the second round in six appearances in Melbourne.

This afternoon, Kuerten, hobbled a bit by a hip problem, is beaten in five sets on the Rod Laver arena by an inspired Julien Boutter from France who comes back from two sets down to win in three hours and nine minutes.

Boutter serves 37 aces and chews up Kuerten's weak second deliveries to bring up one of the finest victories of his career.

"I have a hip problem. It was very painful," says Kuerten but admits that he is still not comfortable on hardcourts.

Match of the day: Julien Boutter (Fra) beat Gustavo Kuerten (Bra) 3-6, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-3.

Quote of the day: "Time is running away from me. I'll have plenty of golf when I retire."

- Yevgeny Kafelnikov, asked if he has had time to play golf in Melbourne.

Day Two, Tuesday, January 15: The cab driver wants to know how big a hero Sachin Tendulkar is in India. "I watched him once here, he is a good player," he says.

Tendulkar is Mr. India when it comes to sport, as big as anything there is, he is told.

"With such a great player in the team, the Indians should be doing a lot better than they are, don't you think?" he asks.

Well, that's the question every Indian cricket fan has been asking for more than a decade now. But this is no Indian cricket fan. The cabbie is as Australian as Crocodile Dundee.

Then the conversation turns to the behaviour of some Australian cricket fans during a one-day match at the MCG recently.

"I was there on that night. It is shame. I think these guys are as bad as the English soccer hooligans," he says.

In front of the Rod Laver Arena at Melbourne Park, it is a different kind of crowd, as is to be expected. Nobody has, as yet, heard of tennis hooligans.

But tennis fans are not all tennis fans, to be sure. On the lawns in front of the famous arena today, a pimply faced teenager is striking a bargain with another fan. He wants to exchange his centre court (Rod Laver Arena) ticket for a ground pass.

Was he crazy? Who would want to give up a centre court ticket for a ground ticket?

Who? On this day, several thousands perhaps, several thousand testosterone-charged young men. For, at the Vodofone Arena, which is accessible with a ground ticket, the first match today features one Ms. Anna Kournikova!

And, as much as they adore her, these young men know that this is perhaps their last chance this year to watch Kournikova in singles. She might be the most sought after tennis player alive, but against Justine Henin, what chance does she have, especially after the long injury break last year.

So, Kournikova does what she does best. She turns up in an attractive skimpy blue outfit, plays two sets and departs. It is her 94 tournament appearance. And she has not won a single title so far.

But who cares about titles when you can make over $10 million a year in endorsements and have a fan following that would make Tiger Woods look like, ah, well, just another superstar!

In the hierarchy of superstar, even Lleyton Hewitt rates lower than the Russian diva globally. But, at home, Hewitt is the greatest thing that's happened to Australian tennis in, well over a quarter of a century.

The first Aussie to end a year as No. 1 and the youngest player to do so in ATP ranking history, Hewitt carries a heavy burden on his shoulders here.

But things have not quite gone right for the street tough Adelaide man whose projected earnings from the game over the next five years is a mind-boggling $200 million.

The chicken pox infection he caught at Perth has ruined his preparations for this big event. But given the identity of his opponent, a 5ft. 7in. Spaniard called Alberto Martin, the critics are certain that the top seed would have an easy passage into the second round today.

And so it seems as Hewitt takes the first set 6-1 in quick time. But Martin, a muscular 23-year old from Barcelona, ignores the popular script and comes up with some spectacular tennis from the back of the court.

With superbly controlled slices and powerful forehands, Martin runs Hewitt ragged. It is obvious that the Aussie is not 100 per cent fit. His legs, which have carried him to the pinnacle of the game, do not obey the commands of his brain and the dramatic match heads to an unlikely climax.

Down two sets to one, Hewitt squanders a 4-2 lead in the fourth and again a 3-0 advantage in the tiebreaker before Martin, up 5-4, takes a medical time out to tend to his left thigh. After a three-minute break, Hewitt, serving, makes successive forehand errors and the biggest upset in Australian Open history in the Open Era is brought up.

It is the first time since 1968 (Open Era tennis) that a top seed has been beaten in the first round here.

"I was definitely struggling. I was not hundred per cent today," says a disappointed Hewitt.

Asked if Martin's tactical decision to take time-out in the end made a difference, Hewitt says, "That was a chocker, what happened at 5-4."

Shocking, maybe, but it was very much within the rules, as Martin points out. "The rules are rules. He called the trainer and so did I. It is the same thing. I didn't do anything against the rules."

Match of the day: Alberto Martin (Spain) bt Lleyton Hewitt (Australia) 1-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6(4).

Quote of the day: "At the end of the day you have to feel good about the deals that you do, and as regards Nike, I don't."

- Pete Sampras on why he has not renewed his Nike contract. For Pete, Nike just doesn't do it anymore!

Day Three, Wednesday, January 16: "Hey, how are you?" As you turn around to see who is wishing you, it is Mahesh Bhupathi standing there in the press writing room.

Bhupathi, who with Leander Paes will playing his first round doubles match on Thursday, seems in good spirits as he talks about the pair's attempts to rope in a new coach in place of Bob Carmichael.

"I spoke to a few guys. I spoke to John Fitzgerald, Jason Stoltenberg and Mark Woodforde. None of them is available at this point. We want someone from that level. We'll have to wait and see," says Bhupathi.

When it is pointed out that the two of them had a packed schedule ahead of them - with the World Doubles Challenge in Bangalore after the Australian Open, followed by the Davis Cup in Beirut - Bhupathi says, "Well, doubles is a dying game. And the guys in Bangalore are doing the best to help. We have to play there."

Someone who doesn't know the sport well might have thought, this afternoon - following the defeat of Mark Philippoussis by the Briton Greg Rusedski in the second round - that tennis is a dying game in Australia.

And to think this should happen in a year when the country was expected to sight its first home-grown champion in 26 years with Lleyton Hewitt as the top seed! Sport, capricious sport, is full of cruel ironies.

Much was made of Philippoussis's new commitment and zeal and his three-week stint in Los Angeles practising with Pete Sampras. But, this afternoon, The Scud does not fire at all. There are a few early sparks but overall it is a disastrous performance as Rusedski powers his way past the giant Aussie.

This is the first time in the Open Era (post-1968) that Australia will not have a male player in the third round of the tournament and only the second time ever that they have not had one in any Grand Slam event.

And joining the procession of seeds today in what has become the Non-Australian Open are Yevgeny Kafelnikov (4), beaten in straight sets by qualifier Alex Kim, a 23-year old Korean-American, and the fifth seeded Frenchman Sebastien Grosjean, ousted in five sets by Francisco Clavet of Spain.

With the Wimbledon champion and 10th seed Goran Ivanisevic losing to an inspired Jerome Golmard of France in four sets later in the night - Golmard won the Gold Flake Open in Chennai in the year 2000 - only four of the top 10 seeds - Tim Henman (6), Tommy Haas (7), Pete Sampras (8) and Marat Safin (9) - are left after three days of play.

Meanwhile, in the light of the devastation here, the Aussies are so desperate that they are trying to rope in Taylor Dent, son of former Australian Davis Cup player Phil Dent, but born and raised in California, to opt for an Australian passport and play Davis Cup for the country.

Dent is quite impressive today in his second round victory and not long after his success, he receives a phone call from Hewitt. "Don't be shy about coming over and playing Davis Cup for us," says Hewitt.

But Dent remains tight-lipped about his options. "I want to get better as a player first. I want to give myself time," he says.

Father Phil says that he will not interfere. "I try to keep out of it. It is his life. I am here to help him if he asks for advice," says Phil Dent.

Match of the day (read that night): Jerome Golmard beat Goran Ivanisevic 6-3, 7-6, 5-7, 6-4.

Quote of the day: "Everybody plays good tennis today. Nobody is going to say, okay, beat me, because you are Kafelnikov or Agassi."

- Goran Ivanisevic on the depth in men's tennis.

Day Four, Thursday, January 17: "Hey, your boys are playing today. The champions are playing today," says Bud Collins, Boston Globe columnist, TV commentator and author of several books on tennis.

About time, you say to yourself. For Bhupathi and Paes are pretty eager to get on court. While Bhupathi did play in Doha, Paes has not hit a single ball in competition since the pair won the Tata Open title in Chennai on January 6.

As well as practising with Bhupathi, Paes has spent some time improving his swing on the lovely golf courses of Melbourne. Golf's become a passion with him these days and over 15 holes today, he shoots five over... not bad at all for a still active professional tennis player.

But golf takes a back-seat as we sit down for lunch in the garden at the press restaurant this afternoon. For, sharing the table near us are Pete Sampras and his new coach Tom Gullikson. They are busy playing backgammon.

As Gullikson greet Paes, the Indian star asks him, "Who is winning?"

"Pete's way ahead but I am trying to catch up," says the coach.

"He is a good front runner," says Paes who is very few men with a winning record against Sampras.

To be sure, given how rarely Paes got to play in major ATP Tour events, the Indian beat the great man the only time they met, over four years ago.

Over the next 20 minutes, it is obvious that Paes is in awe of the fellow professional who is sitting two metres from him.

"What a player! What a champion! The commitment, the talent... and look at his body, perfect for tennis, broad shoulders, thin waist, muscular legs,"Paes simply cannot stop admiring Sampras' virtues.

In the half hour and more that we are in the garden sitting close to the man regarded by many as the greatest big league champion of all time, only one television cameraman chooses to record his presence.

Imagine what would have happened if Anna Kournikova was sitting there with her coach, I say to myself. There would not have been any place in the garden to stand!

A little over an hour later, Sampras, playing the talented Argentine Juan Ignacio Chela - who took him to five sets in the third round here last year - starts well, has a few hiccups along the way, but still manages to win the first two sets.

It is obvious that the great man is not serving well. And Chela takes advantage of his problems to fight back in the third set. But just when it appears that the match would go into the decider, with Chela, after having won the third, breaking back late in the fourth, Sampras plays his best tennis to break the Argentine in the 10th game to close out the match in four sets.

"It was a little bit of a up-and-down match for me today. I didn't play great, spotty at times, but good one to get through," says Sampras.

He is asked how he feels about being the only senior pro left in the event?

"There are still a lot of great players left in the event, and I am one of them," says Sampras, and quickly corrects himself. "I am not saying I am a great player. I don't want to get a swollen head."

Are you kidding, Pete? Swollen head? "Not a great player?"

How about greatest... try that for size Pete. And it won't get to your head either.

Meanwhile, the next great U.S. champion - as he is known popularly - Andy Roddick, pulls out midway in the second set of his match against Ivan Ljubicic of Croatia because of an ankle injury. Another seed - Roddick is seeded 13 - gone in a tournament from which these rated guys are running away as if there is a plague scare at Melbourne Park.

Match of the day: Nicolas Escude (Fra) bt Alex Calatrava (Esp) 2-6, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-4.

Quote of the day: "I think I am the only one in the draw that is healthy."

- Marat Safin.

Day Five, Friday, January 18: Chatting with a friend from one of the top wire services, one hears some nice words being said about the Indian cricketer V. V. S. Laxman.

"He was here recently for some medical attention. I did an interview with him. Good bloke. Speaks very well," says my friend. "Hasn't done much since he played that great innings, has he?"

Well, Indian cricketers themselves haven't done much since they pulled off that miracle against Australia last March.

The conversation veers to Australian cricket and the news agency man's verdict is simple: "Poor selection. Too long a tail. That's why the Aussies are falling apart," he says, a day after Australia loses its third straight match in the triangular series.

As we make our way into the media writing room, there is an announcement about a press release concerning Australia's first round Davis Cup match against Argentina.

Ah, things can't get worse of Australian tennis, can they? Not long after the Aussie men bring up a dubious First by failing to get past the second round, it is now learnt that Lleyton Hewitt will not be available to play for Australia in the first round tie.

"If I am going to play for Australia, I need to be able to prepare properly and be in a position to give 100 per cent," Hewitt is quoted as saying in the press release. "I have resigned myself to the fact that I am not going to be able to do that."

But the Aussie non-playing captain John Fitzgerald, pilloried here for his choice of doubles team in the final against Sweden last year, puts on a brave face.

"It gives some new blood a great opportunity which they haven't had before," says Fitzgerald. "We are going down there to compete hard. Argentina has a very strong team."

Meanwhile, out on the courts, we find out today that the French have some very strong doubles teams. Fabrice Santoro, a Davis Cup hero last year, playing with the left-handed beanpole Michael Llodra, shuts out the third seeded Indian pair, Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes, in two sets, winning the second round match 6-3, 6-4.

Bhupathi and Paes are well below their best and the French pair is far too solid for them today. Yesterday, the Indians had fought off two matchpoints to win their first round against Julian Knowle of Austria and Michael Kohlmann of Germany in three sets.

But today, there are no comebacks for the Indian pair, beaten in the first round here last year, but finalists in 1999. There is no fizz in their game and the Indians let go the chances both in the first and second sets.

Bhupathi and Paes have two chances to break Llodra's serve in the sixth game of the first and two breakpoint opportunities on Santoro's serve in the seventh game of the second. But the French pair is too good today.

"We have our chances but did not take them. I had a little bit of a problem with my hip. I could not bend," says Bhupathi.

"They are a tough pair. They don't give you any rhythm. One hits the ball hard (Llodra) and the other does all sorts of fancy things," says Paes.

Late at night, the much awaited clash of Britons does not match expectations as Tim Henman, at No.6, the highest seed left in the men's draw, gets past Greg Rusedski in four sets. Match of the day: Venus Williams (USA) bt Daniela Hantuchova (Svk) 3-6, 6-0, 6-4.

Quote of the day: "Looking at the draw for myself, I thought I'd go all the way. I didn't have a question."

- Greg Rusedski, after losing to Henman.

Day Six, Saturday, January 19: "Hey, carry a hat today. It is going to be really hot," says a friend at the hotel reception.

For the first time this week, it does look like summer here. Along the banks of the Yarra, several groups of people have settled down for barbecue and there is a huge traffic pile up in front of Melbourne Park.

But the maximum temperature during the day does not touch the predicted level and it is not the sort of scorcher that Melbourne can experience from time to time.

On the courts, it is a rather dull day for the most part, unless you are the type that is excited by a free stroking young woman from Greece - Eleni Daniilidou - taking a set off a rather lethargic Jennifer Capriati.

There is a touch of drama in the contest but not a lot of high quality tennis. For that, you have to move across to the absorbing match in which Roger Federer - looking better and better each passing day - beats Rainer Schuettler of Germany in three close sets.

Elsewhere, Marat Safin - as only he can - manages to blow a fuse in the course of a routine 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 defeat of his young countryman Mikhail Youzhny. Safin, the ninth seed, is slapped a code violation warning in the third set but that is all the drama there during the day before Tommy Haas of Germany overcomes Todd Martin in five tough sets.

The best, of course, is reserved for the last today. And what a contest the last match of the night turns out to be!

With the sort of form that Nicolas Escude has displayed over the last few weeks, starting from the Davis Cup final against Australia in which he beat Hewitt and Wayne Arthurs, a lot of people did believe that he would put up a fight against Pete Sampras tonight.

Then again, for all the brilliance on display from the Frenchman, this is a night when the great Sampras fails to close out the match when in the driver's seat.

Up a break in the third set, he contrives to give it back. Then, in the tiebreak, leading 6-3 with two serves to come, the former world champion lets go of three matchpoints. A double fault, a mishit return winner and then a forehand pass help Escude take the match into the decider.

It is now 10 minutes past 1 a.m. on Sunday morning as Sampras steps on the pedal to win the first four games of the last set. Once again Escude manages to break one back but the great man holds his nerve to serve out the match in three hours and 50 minutes.

"I had the match firmly in my hands. I got a little careless and he picked it up a bit," says Sampras at a press conference held at 2.30 a.m. "He is a very good player, he has got all the shots. But if this sends a message to the rest of the guys, I don't know."

Whatever message it may or may not send to his rivals, this much is obvious. The Sampras of old would not have lost control of the match in the fourth set tiebreak. He recreates the old magic now and again today but somehow it strikes you that physically and mentally he is not where he ought to be if he is keen on winning the championship here.

The former British Davis Cup player and Wimbledon quarterfinalist, John Lloyd, with whom I share a courtesy car to the hotel tonight, says as much on the way back. "Winning seven matches, that is going to be tough for him," says Lloyd.

Match of the day: Pete Sampras bt Nicolas Escude 7-6, 5-7, 6-4, 6-7, 6-3.

Quote of the day: "I am disappointed these kind of things happen to me with the chair umpire. The guy just wants to show off."

- Marat Safin.

Day Seven, Sunday, January 20: You prepare yourself for a roasting today. The Met office has predicted a high of 37 degrees. There will be the familiar sight of innovative TV staff frying eggs on the court today.

And even as Henman and Jonas Bjorkman appear on court for the day's feature match, the early afternoon sun promises to take its toll, on both the fans and the players.

But, as it turns out, it disappears as quickly as Henman does. Low hanging dark clouds race in and a cool air brings down the temperature considerably.

This is no comfort, of course, to Henman. The man who looked as hot as any seed left in the draw the other night when he beat Rusedski looks emotionally and physically drained.

Last night, on the way back to the hotel, John Lloyd was raving about the quality of Henman's volleying and we were discussing his chances of winning his first major here this week as draw has opened out nicely for him.

But, in the face of Bjorkman's point-perfect serve-and-volley tennis, Henman comes apart. His first three service games are broken and he makes a token reappearance in the second set, leading 5-3.

Then again, this surely is not the amiable Briton's day. Bjorkman regains control of the match by breaking Henman's serve in the ninth game of the second set and then making light of a setpoint against him to produce riveting stuff late in the tiebreaker.

"It is a big disappointment. My serve let me down today. He is not a conventional player but he is very effective," says Henman, who once again fails to get past the fourth round of this tournament.

With Henman, seeded six, gone, the bottom half of the draw does not have a single player ranked in the top 15. The quarterfinal line-up reads: Bjorkman v Thomas Johansson; Stefan Koubec v Jiri Novak.

Match of the day: Jonas Bjorkman (Swe) bt Tim Henman (GBR) 6-2, 7-6, 6-4.

Quote of the day: "Could haves, should haves, buts and ifs are not much good." - Tim Henman.