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Foe Is Familiar to Agassi; Result Is a Lot Different

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even the rain couldn’t save Andre Agassi from himself.

Or more accurately, from an 18-year-old qualifier named Marat Safin.

Even though Safin is ranked No. 116 in the world, his name may be more familiar than you might expect. The Russian had Jim Courier on the run in the fifth and deciding Davis Cup match recently in Atlanta before the teenager with the adult ground strokes folded under the pressure of country and Courier.

On the hard courts at Atlanta, Safin also lost to Agassi in straight sets. But Tuesday, in a different country and on a different surface, Safin stunned Agassi at the French Open in the first round, winning, 5-7, 7-5, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2, in 3 hours 11 minutes.

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Just as drops of rain picked up pace, so did Safin. On his third match point, he finished it off when Agassi smacked a forehand into the net.

Thus, Agassi departed Paris without a French Open crown--the only Grand Slam title to elude him--and with a sore right shoulder. He said the injury happened in the first set, noticing something amiss when he went to serve.

Although he put ice on the shoulder immediately after the loss, Agassi did not call for a trainer or ask for an injury timeout during the match. The loss was a decided setback in his latest comeback, in which he has climbed to No. 20 from a low of No. 141 late last year.

“I feel good that I gave myself a shot at it [the French Open championship],” said Agassi, who had not lost in the first round here. “I feel like I was playing well. Everything was moving along nicely.

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“But you can’t expect anything to come easy. We had a tough match. He played really well in the fifth set.”

Agassi wasn’t the only high-profile casualty in the first round. Just before darkness fell, Australian Open champion and No. 2-seeded Petr Korda of the Czech Republic fell out of the tournament, losing, 6-0, 6-2, 3-6, 4-6, 6-3, to 20-year-old qualifier Mariano Zabaleta of Argentina.

Another top player escaped Korda’s fate. No. 4-seeded Patrick Rafter of Australia, the U.S. Open champion, resumed his match against Sebastien Lareau of Canada on Tuesday after it had been suspended because of darkness on Monday before the fifth set. After splitting the first four sets, 6-7 (7-5), 3-6, 6-1, 6-3, Rafter won the fifth set, 6-2, and moved on to the second round.

That was more than what Korda or Agassi could say. Though Korda reached the French Open final in 1992, he lost in the first round in 1994 and ’95. He had been retooling his game for the clay courts, and it was coming together at the World Team Championships in Dusseldorf, Germany, last week.

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“I’m very disappointed,” Korda said. “I felt my energy was not there. I was very slow and not hitting the ball.

“I have to find out what’s wrong, whether’s it’s the flu. I gave everything today. I wanted to win very badly.”

The No. 213-ranked Zabaleta has been primarily playing at the challenger level. His only ATP tour match was a three-set loss to Jan-Michael Gambill in Atlanta in April.

Zabaleta, who had not played a five-set match on the tour, celebrated his victory by taking off his shirt and running to a group of fans who gave him an Argentine soccer jersey.

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Safin, like Zabaleta, also had been toiling on the challenger circuit. His mother is a tennis coach, and his father is the director of a tennis club in Russia. But he has been living in Valencia, Spain, the last four years because his then-sponsor, a Swiss bank, found him a coach there.

Though Safin did not speak much English at the Davis Cup matches, his command of the language is passable. And it led to several amusing moments.

Question: “How long did the bank sponsor you?”

Safin: “For three years. I don’t know [what bank]. They just paid money.”

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Question: “How many Marats are there in Russia?”

Safin: “I don’t know. Maybe one.”

Question: “Don’t you know that Marat was famous on the French Revolution here in Paris?”

Safin: “I know, I know, I know. I know because I study history.”

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Safin acknowledged he was surprised he, not Agassi, will be playing defending champion Gustavo Kuerten in the second round.

“I never run like this, serve so well,” Safin said. “I want to beat him [Agassi], but I think I was really lucky. But for sure I think I will not beat Kuerten. Am very tired.”


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