The losses mounted for Andre Agassi beginning in late March, and snowballed throughout a summer in which he has battled an inflamed hip. The 34-year-old freely acknowledged that his shaky record over the past four months caused his confidence to wane.
But a resurgent Agassi strolled onto the stadium court at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic last night and rolled to a 6-4, 6-2 victory over District native and Rockville resident Paul Goldstein in a first-round match before a partisan crowd.
After defeating Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt a week ago to win a tournament in Cincinnati, Agassi is once again the top seed here, where he is a five-time champion. His recent success is a sharp contrast to what has occurred since his hip injury surfaced in the spring. He was bounced unceremoniously from the first round of the French Open in May, and had failed to advance beyond the second round in two of his past four events.
"I think he put it well himself, that he wasn't putting together the consecutive matches that gives him confidence," said Goldstein, who also lost to Agassi in straight sets here in 2000. "He's clearly putting together great tennis. He's clearly at his best when he has confidence, and it carried into this tournament. I thought it was laughable when people said that he should retire" after the French Open loss.
As Agassi has done so often during his illustrious career, he turned to his relentless work ethic. The same one that pulled him back up from No. 141 in the world in 1998, and led to five grand slam titles in six years, boosting his career total to eight.
"I feel real good," Agassi said. "I needed a win. It certainly feels good to be going into the U.S. Open playing the best tennis when it matters the most. . . . It's about when things come together. I felt I had been practicing well, but it wasn't reflected in matches. In matches, I made some bad decisions. When it turns, it turns quickly and it certainly did."
Trailing 3-1 against Goldstein in the opening set, Agassi quickly broke back when he squeezed a forehand down the line. He won four consecutive games to take control of the match.
"I was pleased with the way I started," said Goldstein. "But he comes up with a shoestring shot down the line to help him get back. If I was able to take a 4-1 lead, the match might have changed."
Agassi didn't let up in the second set. He maintained control with razor-sharp groundstrokes that had Goldstein chasing down balls as if on a yo-yo string.
"He got my attention," Agassi said. "From there I just knuckled down and took over."
As for fifth-seeded James Blake, his efforts to return from head and spine injuries suffered after a practice in May during a tournament in Rome were stymied. Blake suffered a 6-1, 6-4 loss to Adrian Garcia of Chile on the stadium court. In the past six weeks, Blake has been suffering from a virus that has affected his nervous system.
Blake, who claimed his first career title here two years ago, lost the first five games. "I'm definitely feeling the effects of the virus," he said. "It is the worst that I ever felt on a court. Unfortunately, it has come [during] one of my favorite tournaments. I just don't quite have it yet."
Jan-Michael Gambill had had his own medical issues. For the past month, he could not understand why he would wake up in the mornings and feel as if he couldn't breathe. He began to worry when he had to cut practices short because his heart was racing.
After retiring from his first-round match in Indianapolis last month, Gambill had a mild case of asthma diagnosed. Now that he is controlling the condition with an inhaler, he hopes that his 7-5, 6-4 victory over Stefan Koubek indicates that his tennis career is now back on track.
"I've had some problems with my health," said Gambill, who will face Gilles Muller in the second round. "We've done what we can to deal with it. I feel good again."
After advancing to the third round at Wimbledon, Gambill lost first-round matches in his next three events. That's when he decided to see a doctor, who set him on a course of treatment.
"I didn't know why I was getting up in the morning having trouble breathing," Gambill said. "I wouldn't want to practice cause I didn't know what was going on. You become kind of paranoid. . . . As much as I love tennis, my health is more important. . . . think I'm moving in the right direction now."
Against Koubek, Gambill raced out to a 3-1 lead. But Koubek broke back to tie the set at 3-3. Gambill responded by breaking the Austrian at love and then going up 5-4. He served out the match.
"I felt like I played a pretty good all-around match," Gambill said. "I was hitting the ball a lot better. . . . It felt good knowing that I could get a big lead, fall behind and come back."
Although he is a year younger than Agassi, Wayne Ferreira, who will turn 33 next month, is looking forward to the end of the year, when he retires.
The South African moved one step closer when he suffered a 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7-2) loss to sixth-seeded Alberto Martin of Spain. Ferreira squandered a chance to win the match when he lost a service game in the final set and Martin held serve to send the match into a tiebreaker.
"I missed some forehands, which is unusual, because I was trying to go for too much," Ferreira said. "He [Martin] also had a couple of good points."