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A Challenge Not the Point for Agassi

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Children squeal and laugh from a sandbox near the court where Andre Agassi prepares to serve.

Having fallen from atop the tennis rankings, Agassi is playing in a no-name tournament on public courts in Burbank, about as far from the big time as a man can get.

Half a world away, the U.S. team is preparing to face Sweden in the Davis Cup final. Agassi, the star of Davis Cups past, is busy trying to resurrect his career.

Or maybe he is merely trying to concentrate as the sound of giggling children gives way to a car alarm that wails from the parking lot.

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“Better not be my car,” he says.

Agassi, 27, won with predictable ease in the first round of the HealthSouth USTA Challenger at McCambridge Park on Tuesday, recording a 6-2, 6-1 victory over Robert Abendroth, a 19-year-old from Louisiana ranked 1,016th.

Challenger tournaments serve as tennis’ minor leagues, paying very little in prize money but offering plenty of Assn. of Tennis Professionals Tour points. The winner earns 60 points, roughly equivalent to reaching the round of 16 in a Grand Slam tournament.

That can be as good as gold for up-and-comers hoping to make a name for themselves. Or for proven players eager to make a comeback.

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So Agassi was all business against Abendroth, intense on the court, fidgeting during breaks. Afterward, he put a smiling face on his circumstances.

“This is good times. This is what tennis is all about,” he said. “I don’t care if there’s 10 people out there [in the stands]. You get on the court and tee it up.”

The good times have been decidedly few for Agassi this year, replaced by a string of unexpected defeats.

After missing much of the year because of injuries, he was beaten early in Ohio and Washington, D.C., in Los Angeles and at the U.S. Open. His ranking, No. 1 in 1996, was No. 141 last month.

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Things went better off the court--he married actress Brooke Shields last April--but as the losses mounted, his commitment to tennis waned.

“It’s a year-round sport and it’s not easy to do year in and year out, especially for me,” Agassi said. “It’s not fun when you’ve done it well and then you’re struggling.”

The three Grand Slam events he had won and the months he spent at No. 1 in the rankings during 1995 and 1996 became a memory. The only cure, he said, was time.

“It has taken a little while of [losing] before I said, ‘You know what, I’ve got the hunger and the desire to work at this again.’ ”

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Agassi is no stranger to adversity. In a career that has spanned little over a decade, he has been written off several times only to work himself back to the top. He declared an end to this most recent “siesta” after losing yet another first-round match last month at the Eurocard Open in Stuttgart, Germany.

The comeback began with three weeks of running and weightlifting during which he lost 16 pounds. In the meantime, the Davis Cup was going on without him.

“If they need me and I can get the job done, I’ll do it,” said Agassi, who has a 22-4 overall record in seven years of Davis Cup play. “If they don’t need me, God bless them. I don’t have any feelings beyond that.”

So instead of pining for Goteborg, Agassi jumped aboard the Challenger circuit that he had left behind after his rookie year in 1986.

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As one tour official put it: “This will be like watching Bruce Springsteen play at the corner bar.”

Last week, Agassi reached the final at Las Vegas before losing to Christian Vinck, the 202nd-ranked player. Now comes Burbank, where the $7,200 first-place check is probably less than Agassi pays an accountant to calculate the taxes on his endorsements.

The 32-player draw is filled with guys ranked from No. 50 to No. 175 and, in some cases, much lower. MaliVai Washington was scheduled to play but withdrew over the weekend.

Nevertheless, Agassi showed up with a trim body and an avowed determination.

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Against Abendroth, with a crowd of about 200 watching, he displayed characteristically wicked returns. There were a few hard serves and more than a few accurate passing shots. There were self-congratulatory grunts and even some advice for a father who was trying to quiet his sobbing infant at courtside.

“Tell her what the score is,” Agassi quipped. “She might feel better.”

In less than an hour, Abendroth was left shaking his head.

“You try to learn something from every match,” the youngster said. “Today I learned that he likes to swing really hard.”

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But this was only a Challenger and Agassi could take only so much satisfaction from his victory. An easy victory could not test his confidence or shot selection, the split-second decisions that decide a closer match.

“It all starts with moving your feet and working,” he said. “Every match I feel like I’m getting better.”

All that was left was to sign a few autographs and head for the parking lot.

His car waited there, a big Lincoln, safe and sound.

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