Being No. 1 is point of pride for Agassi

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - No. 1 seed Andre Agassi wasn't in a hurry. He had needed just one hour to win his opening match in the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, and now he could linger over programs and tennis balls thrust in his face for autographs.

He moved slowly along the fence row of people lined up to get his signature. He let a smile emerge when he heard a young fan behind him plead, "Agassi, oh please sign for me. I beg of you." And he turned and took the ball and signed it slowly.

When another fan called out, "Ball boy, over here!" Agassi's mouth twitched in humor, but he kept moving on, charming others lined up before him.

He is the world's No. 1 player, again. He knows what goes with that tag. He knows he is the brightest light on the courts and off, and, after beating Ivo Heuberger, 6-3, 6-1, he was willing to do his duty.

Defending champion James Blake had a tougher time reaching the third round. The No. 6 seed fought off two set points in a first-set tiebreaker before beating Gregory Carraz, 7-6 (6), 6-4.

Agassi, for the most part, has always been a charmer. But since winning the French Open in 1999, he has been more aware of his responsibility to the game. He said on the day he became one of just five men to win all four Grand Slam titles in a career that being among the elite of the sport carried a charge with it and he planned to spend the rest of his career living up to it.

"Winning in Paris," he said yesterday, "it was like I was given a second career from that point. ... It gave me the chance to do things beyond what I thought possible. It gave me a second life."

And so, when he is in a match like the one he had just played, a match in which he knows he should dominate and usually does, he doesn't take anything for granted.

He was playing a 27-year-old Swiss who has never been ranked higher than 102. Heuberger, a friendly fellow, went into the match wanting to test his game.

"I knew I had to serve well," he said. "I thought if I could do that throughout the match, I'd get perhaps one or two chances [at a break of serve]. But Agassi is playing another speed level from the baseline. With other players, you have time. With my serve, I like to go to the net, but there was no time to come in and I was trying to come in.

"He has so much energy," Heuberger said of the American, 33. "You can see it. You can feel it. He just loves the game."

Every time Heuberger made a run at snatching back a break of serve in either set, Agassi came up with a bigger serve or a bigger forehand or a bigger backhand and held.

And when Heuberger gave Agassi just a glimmer of light, the world No. 1 player made the outcome on the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center's Stadium Court even clearer.

Agassi held on the one break point chance Heuberger earned, while breaking his opponent on four of five chances.

"I'm always looking to get the job done," Agassi said. "If there is anything better than being up one break, it's being up two. You can never conclude too much. I feel great, the way I focused."

Focus and motivation have been Agassi's key words since arriving. He is here without his family - wife Steffi Graf and son Jaden Gil - and plans to make the most of it.

"Focus takes work," Agassi said. "It's a continuous effort to be focused. Some days are easier than others. The idea is to win when things aren't so easy. I've been doing it a number of years and, for me, it can't be a focus on how you feel, but on what you chose to do."

Motivation, he said, is not so difficult. Competition takes care of the motivation, even in matches like yesterday's.

"You go out there on the court, your competitive juices always take over," he said. "You're not confused as to what it is you're doing. This week, I'm away from my family. I'm not away from my family to be unmotivated. I'm here to get better.

"I'm here to take my chances at winning and prepare myself for the [U.S.] Open. Some days are easier than others, but that's like that with all of us."

NOTES: The Legg Mason tournament has had a run of very good fields for its July and August dates over the years. Next year, however, could be more difficult. According to the ATP website, which released next year's schedule today, this tournament will be held opposite the 2004 Olympics in Athens. ... Brothers Bob and Mike Bryan, the French Open doubles champions, lost their first-round match to Andy Roddick and Brian Vahaly, 6-4, 7-6 (5). ... If Roddick wins his first-round singles match, he'll face Greg Rusedski, who is looking forward to a third match with Roddick in the last four tournaments, including Wimbledon, where Rusedski had a meltdown over a non-call.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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