Agassi unprepared for Paris

Updated: May 24, 2004, 12:36 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

PARIS -- The question lurks around Andre Agassi. How much longer can he play?

At the French Open on Monday, Agassi, at 34 the oldest man in the field, was playing in his 16th championship and was attempting to win his 800th match. Then, Jerome Haehnel, a loose-jointed 23-year-old Frenchman absolutely, positively stunned No. 6 seed Agassi 6-4, 7-6 (4), 6-3. It was the very first ATP-level match of Haehnel's career. When it was over, Haehnel, crowned by a wild mop of blond hair, gazed wide-eyed around Court Philippe Chatrier as though he couldn't believe what happened.

Jerome Haehnel had never even won an ATP match before upsetting Andre Agassi.

Neither could anyone else. Haehnel is ranked No. 271 in the world; it would be hard to imagine an upset of greater proportion.

Afterward, Haehnel tried to explain how it happened and just started laughing.

"I was not thinking about winning or losing," he said. "I was just playing, try to keep the ball in -- that's it. Now I just beat Andre. It's amazing."

So it was. Haehnel has been a professional since 1998, but he had never advanced beyond the minor, minor leagues of tennis. Of the 11 tournaments he had played previously this year, nine were Futures events, the third tier in professional tennis, behind even Challengers. Exactly three weeks ago, Haehnel played in the first round of a tournament in Neheim-Husten, Germany. He lost to Andis Juska and took home $118 for his trouble. Nevertheless, he managed to qualify for the main draw in Paris.

"When I saw the draw two days ago, it was very tough for me," Haehnel said.

Still, even on the most important clay court in the world against the ranking icon of men's tennis, he thought he might have a chance.

"He lost two weeks ago to a guy like me in St. Poelten," Haehnel said, "bad player."

Indeed, Agassi's sole preparation for the event he won in 1999 was a single match last week in Austria. He lost to another qualifier, Nenad Zimonjic, ranked 339, in straight sets but his practice -- he hit with Sebastien Grosjean, Andy Roddick and Paradorn Srichaphan -- had been encouraging.

"I never got comfortable out there," said a downcast, almost disjointed Agassi. "There's really no explanation for hitting the ball like that. I wish, I wish I could give you an excuse."

From the beginning, Agassi seemed to be out of synch and out of position. Haehnel, meanwhile, was just ripping the ball with a fearless, fluid motion. His forehands and serves were, at times, too much for Agassi. When his off-balance backhand was sprayed long, Haehnel took the first set in 37 minutes. Tied at 4-all in the second-set tiebreaker, Agassi missed a backhand into the net and returned Haehnel's last two serves long.

The crowd, which had been trying to cheer the American back into the match, took up residence behind their countryman in the third set. After the decisive shot -- a backhand winner down the line to break Agassi in the eighth game -- the result was not in doubt. Haehnel's final stroke, an ace outside, set him off, screaming and pumping both his fists. It was a good thing for him because he was cramping and concerned at the end of the third set; he had never played a five-set match.

It was evident Agassi was not prepared to play. But there was, according to Agassi, a logical reason. For his was almost a calculated casualty. There are only so many groundstrokes left in his aging body, and Agassi is unwilling to waste more than the minimum on clay, the surface least suited to his game. He would rather spend his time preparing for the other three Grand Slams and their speedier surfaces.

"I took off the clay season because I've always believed that clay takes more out of some people than others," Agassi said. "And for me, it's always been that way. So this season was calculated in the big picture. I have every expectation that Wimbledon and the (U.S.) Open are going to be a lot better than this.

"At this stage of my career, I can't go around grinding, trying to get matches at the risk of expending the energies I do have. It's disappointing. That standard is a long ways off of having any decent shot at winning here. In that regard, I probably got what I deserved."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.