MELBOURNE: Andre Agassi barely takes notice of the end-of-year holidays as he works himself into rock-hard condition for another assault on the Australian Open.
The year’s first Grand Slam tournament is one of the trickiest to prepare for falling just two weeks into the new season and demanding personal sacrifices over Christmas to make the long trip in the right shape.
The 32-year-old elder of the tour is back after the disappointment of last year when he withdrew on the morning of the Open with a wrist injury and this time he is seeded second to Australia’s big hope Lleyton Hewitt.
Agassi has a wonderful record in Melbourne, winning three Opens in six attempts and only out of the semi-finals twice.
His Grand Slam rival Pete Sampras is not here, but Agassi has to contend with a new generation of stars hellbent on making their impact in big-time tennis.
Agassi begins his campaign on Rod Laver Arena here today against compatriot Brian Vahaly. He won his only meeting with Vahaly in straight sets in Washington last year.
"I never hesitated at all to think that I'd be playing this year," Agassi said. "That time might come only when I play my best and I can't win anymore.
"I'll always feel the desire to dig deeper and get through the challenges of trying to succeed. You have to get into the gym, onto the hill for running, then take an easy day.
"I feel I'm in a position do better this year, every year it becomes more important to be strong and healthy. It gets harder and harder, and the other guys get better and better.
"I need to keep pushing myself, it's the only thing I can count on." he said.
Lleyton Hewitt will be under incredible domestic pressure to become the first Australian to win the national Open in 27 years.
The 21-year-old has finished world No.1 in the last two years, claimed Wimbledon, beat 14-time Grand Slam champion Pete Sampras to win the 2001 US Open and has carried off back-to-back Tennis Masters Cups.
He has amassed almost US$11 million in career prize money and led his country to famous Davis Cup victories, but his own national Australian Open has eluded him.
“(The Australian) means more now since I’ve won two of the four majors. Growing up in Australia, I’ve been going to the tournament since I was nine or ten,” said Hewitt.
The Australian Open tends to throw up wildcards in the men’s draw. Sweden’s Thomas Johansson (injured this year) won last year, Frenchman Arnaud Clement made the 2001 final and Petr Korda beat Marcelo Rios in 1998, so upsets can and do happen frequently here.
Third seed Russian Marat Safin, a beaten finalist here last year after beating Sampras in the quarter-finals, is a contender along with Spanish pair fourth seed Juan Carlos Ferrero and No.5 Carlos Moya and Swiss sixth-seed Roger Federer. – AFP