Agassi falls in first round upset in Heineken Open

Tuesday, September 18th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SHANGHAI, China (AP) _ It isn't every day you beat the world's No. 2 tennis player in straight sets.

So when unseeded newcomer Irakli Labadze upset Andre Agassi on Tuesday 7-6 (4), 7-5 in a hard-fought first round match of the Heineken Open, he rushed to the phone to call his father back home in Tbilisi, Georgia.

``I told him how happy I was,'' the 20-year-old said after he hung up. ``This is unbelievable.''

It was the first time Labadze, in his third year as a pro and ranked 101 in the ATP Champions Race, had faced _ much less beaten _ a top-ranked tennis player.

Agassi had opportunities to win in both sets. But the 31-year-old Grand Slam champion said the hard-hitting left-hander came up with tough serves at key moments that helped him keep momentum.

``I felt like I was focusing well. I just thought the guy was playing one of the best serving displays that I've seen in a long time,'' Agassi told reporters.

Labadze blasted 13 aces, keeping his opponent off balance and allowing Agassi to break serve only once.

``Serving is one of my weapons. I knew I had to serve well, and I went for the first serves,'' Labadze said.

Agassi managed only three aces and struggled at times to return the Georgian's blazing volleys.

At other times, Agassi showed his winning form, alternating hard shots with heavy top spin that seemed to confuse Labadze's sense of timing.

Agassi's loss before 2,000 spectators in the newly refurbished Xianxia Tennis Center deprived the dlrs 400,000 Heineken Open of its top-seeded player and top ticket draw.

The second-seeded player, Rainer Schuettler of Germany, is ranked No. 62. Schuettler defeated American Michael Russell 7-5, 6-4.

While crediting the Georgian, Agassi said he suffered from lack of practice before the tournament due to flight cancellations following last week's terrorist attacks in the United States.

Agassi, one of the first U.S. sports stars to play outside the country since the attacks, said he debated whether to come. But he decided it was important to get back to business.

``It's been a difficult time for many people, but I also believe at the same time that sports is a great healer,'' he said. ``To come here and play was something I was very committed to do.''

Labadze said he wanted to call his father right after winning because the elder Labadze had taught the son how to play tennis at age 4. He said his father had cleared out furniture from the living room of their apartment in Tbilisi so Labadze and his younger brother could hit against the wall.

``He always told me to believe in myself, that's all,'' Labadze said.

In other matches, Australian Michael Tebbutt easily upset six-seeded Andrei Stoliarov of Russia 6-3, 6-3. George Bastl of Switzerland beat Czech Petr Luxa 6-1, 7-5. South Korea's Yoon Yong-il defeated Thomas Shimada of Japan 6-4, 6-4.