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Nieminen, pain oust Agassi in first round

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PARIS - Midway through the fifth set, pain shooting down his leg, Andre Agassi's usual pigeon-toed Charlie Brown speed walk between points had slowed to something closer to a shuffle.

It was evident to everyone in the house, including Agassi himself, that he was going down - run into submission and suffering by qualifier Jarkko Nieminen, one of the fastest players in tennis and perhaps the last man to face Agassi at the French Open.

If this stunning 7-5, 4-6, 6-7 (6), 6-1, 6-0 loss in the opening round was Agassi's final trip to the red clay of Paris, it wasn't accompanied by his trademark blown kisses to the 14,000 packed into the Philippe Chatrier court, nor with any salute to a nation that considers him greater than Jerry Lewis.

He packed his bag, slung it over his shoulder, sportingly waited for Nieminen to finish his several rounds of waves, then exited the court with him, his head down and his spirits as low as they've been in a long time.

For the last two sets, Agassi looked 35, which is what he is. He's a man who outwardly looks very physically fit - solid enough to reach the quarterfinals of the Australian Open and the semifinals in Key Biscayne, Fla., and Rome.

But, he revealed, he has sciatica, and the late-February cortisone shot he took for the inflamed nerve in his back has just about worn off.

"You know, it's bad. It's something that needs to be addressed because I can't be out there like that," he said. "I mean, I literally hurt."

He said the pain flared in the middle to late part of the third set "and it was getting worse by the minute."

He said he considered chucking the match after hitting a brilliant service return to win the third-set tiebreak.

"I almost shook hands at two sets to one. It was painful to serve, to move, to stand, even to sit," Agassi said.

If this failure at Roland Garros was a one-time event, there would be less speculation about his retirement at or before the end of 2005. But this is his second first-round loss in a row here, beaten in 2004 by French wild card Jerome Haehnel, who was playing his first regular tour match.

There was nothing to suggest Agassi, the 1999 champion, was in for a rough French Open with a cozy draw and an opening round against a Finnish qualifier he had beaten easily previously. But at 3-0 in the first set, Agassi suddenly lost his smoothness and range, and Nieminen's speed began to make an impact.

Several times Nieminen would get to balls Agassi normally hits for winners or forced errors.

"I didn't notice anything in the first three sets," Nieminen said. "And then during the fourth set I realized he was missing a lot of balls and doesn't move that well anymore."

Where does he go from here? Hopefully Wimbledon, he said. And retirement? It's probably too early after this loss, with his mind filled with conflicting emotions, to expect a clear answer to that question.

But unlike other older players, he has something to go to after tennis - wife Steffi Graf, two children, a growing charity and school for inner city children.

So why keep playing when he's won every Grand Slam?

"It's what I do," said Agassi, who set an Open-era record by playing in his 58th major event. "It's what I do until I can't do it anymore. And it's given me a lot. I'll assess the necessary components at the end of the year. But I can't afford to pollute the potential of my winning matches or tournaments with sitting on the fence, with where I am, what I'm doing and why I'm doing it."

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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