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Agassi Loses at Aussie Open

January 26, 1999

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) _ If Andre Agassi isn’t quite ready to announce his retirement, the prospect can’t be too far away after his doddering exit from the Australian Open.

Once possessed of the magic to lift his game to the highest level at the first hint of trouble, Agassi looked Monday as if he’d forgotten how to win and didn’t much care.

Perhaps age _ Agassi will be 29 when the next major, the French Open, rolls around _ or long layoffs or interests in other things have conspired to rob him of his reflexes and desire.

Whatever it is, Agassi’s 6-1, 7-5, 6-7 (3-7), 6-3 loss to No. 44 Vince Spadea in the fourth round confirmed the downward spiral of a once-scintillating career.

In a women’s upset, France’s unseeded 19-year-old Amelie Mauresmo, 1996 Wimbledon and French junior champion, beat No. 11 Dominique Van Roost of Belgium, 6-3, 7-6 (7-3).

Mauresmo, who had never gone beyond the third round in seven other Grand Slam tournaments, will play in the semifinals against the winner of Tuesday night’s match between No. 1 Lindsay Davenport and No. 5 Venus Williams.

Thomas Enqvist, who beat Australian favorites Patrick Rafter and Mark Philippoussis, advanced to the men’s semis with a 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 victory over Marc Rosset.

In Agassi’s last six Grand Slam tournaments, which are the only ones he really cares about at this stage, he has faded in the fourth round four times, the first round once and the second round once.

An uninspired Agassi sat out most of 1997, when he dropped as low as No. 122, then climbed back to No. 6 when he rededicated himself to the game last year.

When asked if he could take any encouragement from this tournament, Agassi would have none of that.

``No, no,″ he said softly. ``I needed to do better here.″

For Agassi, watching time slip away, there is little to keep him in tennis beyond the prospect of winning at least one more major tournament. He won the Australian in 1995, the U.S. Open in 1994, Wimbledon in 1992 and was runner-up at the French Open in 1990 and ’91.

He’s been playing on the pro tour since 1986 and is rich beyond his dreams, with more than $15 million in prize money and several times as much in endorsements. His actress wife, Brooke Shields, may be even richer.

Money doesn’t motivate Agassi, winning does. And not just winning early-round matches or small tournaments and exhibitions. Winning in Grand Slam events.

This Australian Open, with Pete Sampras absent and the four seeds ahead of him gone, represented the No. 5 Agassi’s best and perhaps last chance to win a major again. The only seeded players to reach the quarters were No. 7 Karol Kucera, No. 10 Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and No. 15 Todd Martin.

That Agassi should find himself, against a journeyman like Spadea, playing so unenthusiastically, lost on the court and not knowing what to do, suggests more than ever that he is on his way out of the game. Spadea played well, to be sure, but the old Agassi would have carved him to pieces.

``I was not surprised that Vince was capable of beating him, I was surprised at the lack of energy Andre had,″ said Martin, who advanced with a three-set victory over Zimbabwe’s Wayne Black. ``You expect guys who have been here so often to come up with the goods when necessary.″

Agassi’s usually voluble coach, Brad Gilbert, could barely watch the match, and frequently buried his head in his hands. He, too, will have to evaluate whether it’s worth his time and Agassi’s to keep pursuing an elusive dream.

``It was just a question of me really not stepping it up and forcing him to play better,″ Agassi said. ``I kind of went by the wayside.

``It’s real disappointing. I mean, Grand Slams are opportunities to do something great. ... You put a lot of pressure on yourself.″

Even when Agassi scrambled out of trouble against Spadea to win the third set, he didn’t appear particularly pumped. In the old days, that would have been the time when Agassi would start skipping balls off the lines and corners and demoralize an opponent. This time, Agassi played feebly, with a faraway gaze. The inner belief he always had in himself had vanished.

``I just didn’t like the way it was all going,″ he said. ``Granted, I was still in the match, but I didn’t like the way I was hitting the ball. It didn’t feel right.

``I certainly would have been ready for something good to happen, but it starts with really believing it. I didn’t believe I could play any better today. ... I spent a lot of energy just being frustrated with myself, and when it was time to step it up, I didn’t feel I had that extra gear.″

Without that extra gear, Agassi is an ordinary player, vulnerable to defeat against anyone in any round.

When he was younger, that wasn’t a problem. Now Agassi must face the prospect that the extra gear he needs to sustain him through the seven matches of a Grand Slam tournament may never be there again.

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