Agassi and Roddick take centre stage in Melbourne
MELBOURNE: Champion Andre Agassi will face a fired-up local player and a partisan night crowd when he launches his Australian Open title defence on Monday.
But the fourth-seeded American will be focused on only one thing when he lines up against Todd Larkham, success. Agassi’s preparations suffered a minor blip on Saturday when he was beaten in the final of the Kooyong International warm-up event.
Grand slams, though, are where Agassi moves up a gear and he says he is ready for his tilt at a fifth Australian Open crown. “I know that I’ve done my work and now it is time to play,” he told reporters.
“I feel very motivated to be down here trying to take that next step, putting myself in the position hopefully to win. “It is the same for me every year...I approach it from the standpoint of being so challenged by the next day that I don’t look at it as a mountain to climb, it’s sort of one step at a time.”
Before Agassi plays under the stars, world number one Andy Roddick will end the day session with his unenviable clash against Fernando Gonzalez of Chile. Heading the field at a grand slam for the first time, top seed Roddick would have liked an easier opponent but knows he has to roll his sleeves up and get on with it. “It’s a tough first round...I don’t know where he is ranked but I thought he would be seeded,” said the American. “But, hey, it means I am going to have to play right from the start. I beat him on clay and he beat me on hardcourts so go figure...we usually have pretty fun matches.”
Australian wildcard: Roddick and Gonzalez, ranked 35th but no stranger to the top 20, met twice in 2002 and the honours were split.
Neither match could have been tighter, Gonzalez winning in Cincinnati 7-6, 7-6 and Roddick victorious by the same scoreline in Monte Carlo. Women’s world number one Justine Henin-Hardenne also plays on day one. She faces wildcard Olivia Lukaszewicz, who will be making her WTA Tour debut. Henin-Hardenne received her first glimpse of the 15-year-old Australian when she was practising on Sunday.
“I am feeling good and looking forward to playing,” French and US Open champion Henin-Hardenne said. “I feel strong and eager to play.” Also looking forward to playing was Henin-Hardenne’s fellow Belgian Kim Clijsters, who announced on Sunday she would take her place as second seed in the draw. Clijsters had been a doubt since injuring her foot at the Hopman Cup in Perth earlier this month. “I’ve done everything I could,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of treatment and I’ve done everything I could to get ready and that’s why I’m willing to give it a shot.
“It’s getting better. It’s still not 100 percent but I’ve come here and decided that I’ll play. “I started hitting two days ago and it felt okay. I’ll play with it taped,” said Clijsters. “If I don’t do anything bad like happened at the Hopman Cup, then I can play with it.”
The 20-year-old has been given an extra day’s rest and opens her campaign against Germany’s Marlene Weingartner on Tuesday.
Former world number one Gustavo Kuerten plays on Monday, against Dutchman John van Lottum, and French fourth seed Amelie Mauresmo takes on Taiwanese Chia-jung Chuang.
An extra night session on Margaret Court Arena will feature 2002 finalist Marat Safin against American Brian Vahaly. —Reuters