Agassi Gets a Shot to Deal With Back Pain

Serena Williams
Serena Williams has little problems in the first round and hopes to make a long run through the U.S. Open after missing much of the year with an injury. (Kevin Lamarque - Reuters)
By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 31, 2006

FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y., Aug. 30 -- The cheers and ovations of a capacity crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium pulled Andre Agassi through his marathon opening-round match at the U.S. Open on Monday night, but they were no help in getting him through the agonizing aftermath, in which his damaged sciatic nerve raged with a pain that bordered on paralysis.

After consulting with his private physician in Santa Monica, Calif., Agassi went to a Manhattan hospital for a cortisone injection Tuesday afternoon in hopes it would dull the pain and make it possible for him to play on in what will be the final tournament of his career, his trainer Gil Reyes confirmed Wednesday night.

Agassi, 36, has struggled with debilitating pain related to the nerve damage for several years and has taken a carefully regulated number of injections to cope with it. But he had never undergone the procedure during a tournament before, according to Reyes, and cleared the measure with tournament officials after deciding he had no other choice.

"It's not a preferred option; it was his only option," Reyes said. "It's certainly not something in the big picture which you would do frequently, and Andre understands that. But for us, it's not about the big picture at the moment. Our focus is on the next match, and that's tomorrow."

Members of Agassi's team grew concerned about his condition once Monday night's match passed the two-hour mark, and only two sets had been completed. As the match spilled into Tuesday morning, they noticed him touching his lower back -- a telling sign of discomfort.

"We knew we were going to have some ramifications," Reyes said. "It was amazing to see how important the night was for him -- not only how well he was trying to play but how hard he was trying to fight. After the match he said it hurt to stand, it hurt to sit, and it hurt to lie down. He said [the next day] in his sleep it was hurting."

The procedure, in which a seven-inch needle is inserted into Agassi's lower back, doesn't offer immediate relief but typically takes 24 to 48 hours to kick in. Agassi didn't practice Tuesday and returned to the tournament grounds Wednesday to hit a few balls lightly with his coach, Darrin Cahill.

"The inflammation was pretty bad, and I just don't want to go off the court limping," Agassi told USA Network on Wednesday. "It's not what I want to do."

Asked if there was any doubt that Agassi could play Thursday against eighth-seeded Marcos Baghdatis, Reyes said: "The plan is that he take the court. Right now it's all about bringing everything he has and leaving everything here. I truly, truly believe he's prepared to take the court tomorrow night and leave it all out there."

With Tuesday's rain scuttling every match on tap, Wednesday was a busy day at the U.S. Open, with nearly the entire firmament of tennis stars on display.

Two-time U.S. Open champion Serena Williams made a majestic debut on Arthur Ashe Stadium. Draped in a purple, gold and red cocktail-style tennis dress adorned with an Asian motif, Williams needed only 55 minutes to dismiss Lourdes Dominguez-Lino, 6-1, 6-2. The decisiveness of her victory was far less a comment on her opponent's frailty -- the Spaniard fought with great heart -- than it was Williams's power.

Playing in only her fourth tournament this year, Williams blasted 34 winners to Dominguez-Lino's three and battered her with a booming serve.

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