Agassi looks strong; Capriati eyes repeat

Sunday, May 26, 2002

PARIS -- "Conventional" probably isn't the best word to describe Andre Agassi.

So it shouldn't surprise anyone that after winning one key French Open tuneup he decided to skip another, swallow a $40,000 fine and make an extra trip back to the United States before heading to Paris.

Nor should it shock anyone that at the advanced-for-tennis age of 32, Agassi seems poised to make a strong run at an eighth major title when play starts Monday at the French Open. And he likes his chances.

"I find that as I get older, it gets more difficult, which increases the challenge of it," he says, "which fuels the very thing that motivated me in the first place."

Having dropped below No. 100 in the ATP Tour rankings in 1997, Agassi's career renaissance started at the '99 French Open, when he began a run of four championships in a span of eight Grand Slam events.

Now he's ranked No. 4, and nobody has been playing better tennis of late.

Smacking balls over the net during a practice session at Roland Garros, Agassi looked little like the brash kid who made the French Open semifinals at the age of 18 and the final at 20 and 21.

Back then, his "Image is Everything" days: streaks of blond in below-the-shoulders hair, Day-Glo pink cycling tights, dangling earring.

Now, his "Father Knows Best" days: shaved pate, monochromatic T-shirt and shorts, hoop earring (OK, so not everything has changed completely).

In 1990, the year Agassi reached his first Grand Slam final here, a 14-year-old Jennifer Capriati became the youngest French Open semifinalist. Like Agassi, of course, Capriati knows a thing or two about comebacks.

The defending French Open champion is one of a handful of players with a realistic chance at the women's title, including the Williams sisters and Belgians Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters. Of those five players, only Capriati has won the French Open.

Martina Hingis, who's won every major except this one, and Lindsay Davenport are injured.

"I'm definitely playing better than last year," said Capriati, who has won three of the past five majors (Venus Williams took the other two). "At the French, I was playing really well, and I don't know if I could play better than that. I think every year or every (tournament) I get better and better and stronger."

Agassi's play has been superb since he returned from an early season wrist injury that forced him out of the Australian Open. He's won 24 of 27 matches and three titles in 2002, including the Rome Masters Series event this month, his first championship on clay since the '99 French Open.

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