Relevant Season Returns

It's back to cat suits (well, maybe not) and perhaps a bit of cat fighting (well, maybe the ATP versus IMTA squabble) now that the winter cat-nap that is professional tennis has ended in the United States.

For most, January might as well be tennis in a different galaxy. Certainly there were a lot of great matches, career breakthroughs and epics in Australia, but very few mainstream sports fans get excited unless they see it on TV during waking hours.

February seems to be an assortment of tournaments running together on an endless loop. But that's over and now the most important month in the sport -- outside the remaining three Slams -- has arrived. The top two players in the world, Lleyton Hewitt of Australia and Andre Agassi -- are playing this week in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Locally, women start main-draw action at the Pacific Life Open at Indian Wells on Wednesday, and the men join them a week from today. Qualifying in the women's draw begins today. After Indian Wells, the troupe picks up and moves to Florida for another Masters Series event in Miami.

Potential Plot Lines

1. Agassi vs. Hewitt -- Theoretically, they could meet three times in four weeks. Hewitt wasn't even planning to play Scottsdale until officials, concerned about the growing possibility Pete Sampras would drop out, approached him about a wild-card spot.

And so, the bad news about Sampras withdrawing was offset by a legitimate, interesting battle for the No. 1 spot. Agassi trails Hewitt by 30 points in the ATP's Entry System, and is attempting to be the world's oldest No. 1 in the ranking's 30-year history.

How do they match up? Agassi is so unpredictable that last year's results don't provide much guidance. In 2002, he won Scottsdale, lost in the first round to Michel Kratochvil of Switzerland at Indians Wells and beat Roger Federer to win Miami. The Kratochvil result was his only opening-round loss last year.

Hewitt had little trouble beating Sampras in the semifinals and Tim Henman in the final at Indian Wells in 2002, and then had his 15-match winning streak stopped by Federer at Miami in the semifinals.

Agassi has dropped two of his three most recent meetings against Hewitt, and two were considered among the best men's matches of 2002. Of course, hardly anyone outside the Bay Area saw the first one, in which Hewitt saved two match points in the San Jose final. The Agassi victory was quite different, on the big stage, as he beat Hewitt in four sets in the U.S. Open semifinals.

2. Pete Watch 2003 -- Talk about an agent of change. What hasn't Sampras changed in the last year or so? He has had three coaches, switched management agencies twice, left Nike, rejoined Nike, had a child and even put his house on the market last week.

The underlying theme of disruption is fascinating, but his biggest decision looms. After winning the U.S. Open in September, he pondered retirement and finally said in December that he would continue playing.

Having dropped out of Scottsdale and San Jose, the 14-time Grand Slam champion appears no closer to coming back than before. Of course, that could change tomorrow. His thought process will be another major thread in March, whether he takes the first step back at Indian Wells, Miami ... or nowhere.

3. Serena's Streak -- Well, one alliterative is over, so let's bring on another. Serena Williams won the Serena Slam in January at the Australian Open, and holds all four Grand Slam titles at the same time.

Now there's the matter of her announced goal of going through 2003 undefeated, even though that has been said with a wink. But Williams survived several tough tests in Melbourne, fighting off two match points against Kim Clijsters in the semifinals and went on to easily win her next title, in Paris.

She pulled out of Scottsdale last week, citing knee pain, and her next scheduled event is Miami. Not counting the Hopman Cup, which isn't a WTA event, Williams is 11-0 and has won two titles. In the Open era, Steffi Graf had the best start to a year on the tour, winning her first 45 matches in 1987. Martina Hingis (1997) and Martina Navratilova (1978) are tied for second at 37 matches.

Add Andre

Oddly enough, Agassi's accomplishments almost get taken for granted, which is a shame when you really study his recent record. He is 12-0 -- off to his best start since he opened 1995 with 15 consecutive victories -- and has dropped two sets. The last time he was No. 1 in the world, on the Entry System, was September 2000.

Television commentator Mary Carillo, who was in the booth for ESPN's broadcast of Agassi's championship in Australia, kept coming back to his mode of operation. The interview had been about potential challengers to Serena and Venus Williams, and how women on the tour play against them and it turned to Agassi, who will be 33 in April.

"It's like Agassi," she said. "Agassi just moves you, muscles you. He just tortures you. The girls don't want to end the points like that -- they're just going to go for the swift kill. He'll extend a rally just to exhaust you.

"If some guy ends up hustling around and winning that rally, he loses the next thee points. It's torture and [former coach] Brad Gilbert taught him how to do it. By the second set, you've taken his legs out from under him. He's got nothing."

Her feeling was that the sharp contrast, from facing Hewitt on one day to Sampras the next, is what cost Agassi the U.S. Open.

"He went from playing the best defensive player in the world to the best offensive player in two days,' Carillo said. "That's a very quick turnaround.

"That, to me, is what got him."

Sweeping Up

Mirjana Lucic of Croatia, a semifinalist at Wimbledon in 1999, was among those given a wild card into the main draw of the women's event at Indian Wells . Lucic has dropped out of the top 200. The other wild cards went to Stephanie Cohen Aloro of France, Gisella Dulko of Argentina, Tatiana Golovin of France, Jelena Jankovic of Yugoslavia, 17-year-old Bethanie Mattek, 15-year-old Russian Maria Sharapova and Peng Shuai of China.

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