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An aching Agassi is forced to bid adieu

PARIS -- It was a wake masquerading as a tennis match. What else could you call it when 15,171 folks gather to mourn an old friend?

Not everyone grieved, of course. A lone Finnish flag flapped happily amid the congregation, and a few of the instigator's compatriots made merry, as the instigator of the viewing, Jarkko Nieminen, looked at the corpse and thought he detected signs of life. Faint ones, but it was too late. Too late to spoil the party that Nieminen gave himself with speed and tenacity, causing the bereaved's admirers to wail his name and plead for his resurrection.

In fact, the corpse, named Andre Agassi, did manage to hobble from Stade Roland Garros late yesterday afternoon, offering a slight wave of farewell to those attending his planting in the French Open. Like innumerable American guys before him, he was buried in the clay, 7-5, 4-6, 6-7 (6-8), 6-1, 6-0. The setting was fittingly funereal: ominously dark clouds and cool, swirling breezes.

Though he held that two-sets-to-one lead, Agassi was thereafter lifeless, losing 12 of the last 13 games, struck down by an inflamed sciatic nerve that affected his mobility.

"After the third set, I almost went to the net to shake hands," said Agassi, whose 17th French Championships appearance was deadened by "pain that was getting worse and worse, running down my back and into my legs. But I wasn't going to walk out. I didn't want to leave that way."

No quitter he, aching or otherwise.

If not for Agassi seizing the title in 1999, this tournament would be a total wasteland for American men; he's the only champ since Jim Courier in 1991-92.

Agassi and the French public have conducted a long love affair since 1987. But, having failed to win the finals of 1990 and 1991, his chances to consummate the romance diminished, and the title seemed out of reach, especially when he lost in the first round of 1998. However, the following year he dethroned Carlos Moya, and went on to overtake Andrei Medvedev in the championship showdown.

At 35, and hostage to a sciatic condition that can be alleviated only by periodic shots of cortisone, Agassi, the game's No. 7, may yet be a formidable competitor (a semifinalist at the recent Italian Open). But he can be blindsided by anybody on clay in a best-of-five-set test.

Yesterday, Mr. Anybody was the 23-year-old lefthanded qualifier, Nieminen, ranked No. 97. For him, as you'd suspect, the win was "Big! I respect Agassi so much. As a kid I had his poster on my bedroom wall."

And then the poster came to life -- in his face. "He destroyed me the other time we played -- 6-2, 6-0 [at Key Biscayne] two years ago." If this one had been best-of-three, Agassi would be in the second round, looking for another cortisone shot, thinking about Igor Andreev for tomorrow. But the majors are tougher, more punishing. Though Agassi says he'll get that shot ("maybe three times a year to keep me going") and inject himself into Wimbledon and the US Open, his future in the majors is dicey.

''I have every intention of playing through this year," he said. ''I have high hopes. Something tells me I'm at the stage of my career where I'm going to be living with these injections because this is unplayable when I feel like today. An injection only takes about 10 minutes, and if I can give up 10 minutes for a few [pain-free] months I'll probably choose that."

During the last two runaway sets, Agassi buried his head in a towel at changeovers, hiding the hurt and tears. ''It was disappointing not to be competitive out there," he said, ''but I'll keep plugging along until I feel there's nothing I can do about it."

Nieminen, a husky 6 feet 2 inches with a blond mop of hair, was tremendously swift, keeping the ball active in prolonged exchanges, stealing points that seemed Agassi's. ''Practicing with Andre last Thursday helped me," he said. ''I knew I had a chance. The atmosphere was terrific."

For three sets, the match went like a revolving door. Agassi led, 3-0, after 11 minutes. Eleven minutes later, Nieminen was up, 5-3. ''Break points everywhere for both of us," the Finn laughed. Agassi clicked on 5 of 20, Nieminen on 10 of 27. But Agassi's mistakes broke the bank: 15 double faults, 98 unforced errors, to Nieminen's 5 and 39. Their points were life-and-death struggles until Agassi succumbed in the fourth set. The most recent medicinal shot (February) ran out at an untimely moment, and Agassi ran out of shot-making.

If you suggest it's time for Andre to quit -- I don't -- he'll say, ''Tennis is what I do. I don't second-guess myself, as easy as it is sometimes. I choose to put my head down and work, and look at it all at the end of the year."

This is the second successive French in which Agassi emulated Pete Sampras's annual bumbling on the clay that makes icons-for-a-day of unknowns. Last year Agassi collapsed against qualifier Jerome Haenel, No. 271.

Disappointment yes, discouragement no. One of the greatest careers in tennis is now balanced on the tip of a hypodermic needle, but it will take a few more wakes before Agassi believes that he'll wake up out of a job.

Boston Lobsters teammates James Blake and Scotty Draper got a first-round split yesterday at the French Open. Blake, the former Harvardian, beat fellow qualifier Tomas Tenconi, an Italian, 6-2, 6-4, 7-6 (10-8). Moving up in the rankings after injuries and illness, Blake is at No. 127; he next faces No. 87 Stanislaus Wawrinka of Switzerland. Draper, an Aussie lefthander ranked No. 1,015, forced Swede Thomas Johansson, the 2003 Australian Open champ, to five sets, losing, 6-7 (5-7), 6-1, 3-6, 6-0, 6-1.

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