Fast Start for Agassi and Sanchez Vicario : Tennis: Brightest stars have little difficulty disposing of their first-round opponents at the Australian Open.


The rains came, hot and steamy, washed away the morning's schedule and caused a hectic compression of court time throughout the rest of the day.

At the Australian Open, such moments are welcome in a nation wracked by drought.

The sun never did come out, but the stars did. Andre Agassi made his debut in this tournament today and was greeted with squeals and great curiosity. Agassi, seeded No. 2 but No. 1 in the hearts of every teeny-bopper in southern Australia, beat Grant Stafford of South Africa, 6-2, 6-4, 6-2.

In the women's field, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario did what top seeds do to players ranked 50th, she surgically removed Fang Li, a 22-year-old Chinese woman, from the draw. The score was 6-2, 6-0 and varied not much from other first-round scores. But it gave a glimpse of what it must be like to be the speed bump under the wheels of a player racing toward the final.

Agassi's presence on court came amid a fan and media frenzy that has been building ever since last summer, when Agassi announced he would play here for the first time. It's as if the circus had come to town for the first time.

Much notice has been taken of Agassi's new ultra-short haircut and his ultra-hip goatee. The fabrics and hemlines of Agassi's new clothing line, Tennis Sucks, have been analyzed at great length on television.

This morning, the lead story in the Melbourne-based newspaper, The Age, was a national scoop: details of the location of the house Agassi is renting while here and some juicy speculation about who will be occupying the home's second bedroom.

The late afternoon match was brief but seemed to sate the crowd at center court. At least it satisfied Agassi.

"I can't complain," he said. "I did what I had to do. It's important to get the job done as efficiently as possible, particularly in these conditions. By the second week, I'll be peaking. But right now, to do what I had to do, I was pleased."

There was little anticipation of Sanchez Vicario's first match. It was ugly in the way of all routs. Sanchez Vicario was not called upon to raise her game to an entertaining level and even the most cynical fan would be hard-pressed to find enjoyment in 50 minutes of Li's fruitless machinations.

Sanchez Vicario ruthlessly mowed down Li, moving effortlessly through the first set and taking only 18 minutes to end the second set. Fans were restless, waiting for the Agassi match to follow, and were not reluctant to whistle or laugh. Li's English might be weak, but she was surely aware of the crowd's indifference to the match.

Her frustration was evident in her expression, which was set in constant wince. Toward the end, as she was being steamrollered in the second set, unable to hold serve and slapping shot after shot into the net, Li began to cry.

On the changeover in the fifth game of the second set, Li buried her face into a towel and sobbed, her shoulders heaving. She took the court for the last game while tears still ran down her cheeks.

It was an indicator of what it must feel like to be humiliated in front of 7,000 spectators on center court of a Grand Slam tournament.

Later, speaking through an interpreter and standing in a tunnel under the stadium, Li shook her head an smiled as she recounted her center court debut.

"At practice in the morning, I couldn't find my way on the court," she said. "(During the match) I couldn't do anything right. I felt like a beginner. I tried, but I couldn't do anything. Arantxa didn't kill me, I made a lot of mistakes myself. I couldn't hit a ball."

Indeed, the match ended on a dull note when Li totally missed an easy overhead. Her level of unforced errors was more than double Sanchez Vicario's. Li committed 42 unforced errors to Sanchez Vicario's 20.

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