June 30, 2006

Agassi primed for Nadal challenge

By Martyn Herman

LONDON (Reuters) - When long-haired teenager Andre Agassi
made his Wimbledon debut in 1987 he won just five games in his
first round defeat by Henri Leconte and could barely disguise
his contempt for the All England Club traditions.

Now, nearly two decades on, another bandana-wearing
upstart, Spain's Rafael Nadal threatens to bring down the final
curtain on Agassi's magical relationship with the grasscourt
grand slam that he eventually grew to love.

Nadal, 20, has already written his name in the record books
with two French Open victories and 60 consecutive claycourt
wins, but Saturday's third round meeting with 1992 champion
Agassi will cast him very much as the master's apprentice.

The Mallorcan spin king looked like a grasscourt novice
during his five-set victory over American qualifier Robert
Kendrick on Thursday, although his ferocious will to win
allowed him to recover from a two-set deficit.

The 36-year-old Agassi's back may be creaking these days,
but there is very little the American does not know about the
subtleties of Wimbledon's lawns.

Nadal was not even born when Agassi played his first
professional match. Yet despite his naivety on grass, Agassi
knows he will need all his experience to fight off the raging
bull on Saturday.

"(Nadal) will have his hands full trying to master grass,
no question," Agassi said this week,

"This surface takes an edge off what's happening with his
ball...it's more difficult for him to hit it how he normally
does. On paper it's not ideal for him.

"But we've seen the way he competes. We've seen what I
never thought would be broken in all those matches on clay, the
kind of strength that takes mentally and in your heart, it's
incredible. If there's somebody that can do it, it can be him."


On slow claycourts Nadal is virtually impossible to pass
while on bouncy hardcourts his opponents need step ladders to
return his kicking horse forehand.

On Wimbledon's skiddy grass, however, his topspin is
muffled and a well placed 125mph serve leaves even him swishing
at thin air.

Agassi lost their only previous meeting in Montreal last
year, but this time feels the surface will favor him.

"In Montreal, it was a very fast, high bouncing court, you
know. His ball was just ugly," he said.

"Here the ball doesn't bounce as high which hopefully will
allow me to set a little bit more my ground strokes.

"But, listen, he's very confident a great competitor, very
talented and fit. So it's gonna be a hard match."

It should be a fascinating contest and one which
three-times former Wimbledon champion John McEnroe is

"I know that all of us are looking forward to Andre playing
Nadal," McEnroe, NBC's lead tennis analyst, said.

"If Agassi is up to it physically, he has the tools,
comfort level and type of game to do well on this surface even
though he's not a big server or volleyer.

"I think it's a boost for tennis to have one of the
all-time greats up against an up and coming superstar. That's
the type of match we need."

Nadal plays down his chances, saying he still needs three
or four years to have a chance of emulating Manuel Santana, the
last Spaniard to win Wimbledon in 1966.

If he beats Agassi and gets into the second week, however,
there is no telling how far this extraordinary fighter might