Agassi Tops Martin in Italian Open

Monday, May 8th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ROME (AP) — Andre Agassi returned to European clay Monday for the first time since his dramatic French Open victory last year and found the slow red surface still to his liking.

Playing steady if unspectacular tennis, he held off big-serving fellow American Todd Martin 6-2, 7-6 (4) in the first round of the Italian Open.

``There's no question,'' it felt good to be back in Europe, said Agassi, playing his first tournament since he was sidelined in April by a thigh injury and happy he wasn't forced into a third set.

``I felt like I played solid enough, but the tests will be coming more and more.''

Other straight-set winners included third-seeded Magnus Norman, No. 5 Cedric Pioline, No. 6 Nicolas Lapentti, No. 8 Tim Henman, No. 9 Lleyton Hewitt and No. 14th Younes El Aynaoui.

Two-time Wimbledon finalist Goran Ivanisevic, a crowd favorite who had to play through qualifying to reach the main draw, made a quick exit, losing to Francisco Clavet 6-4, 3-6, 7-5.

It was in Rome last year that Agassi began a comeback that saw him win the French Open — after dropping the first two sets — and regain the No. 1 ranking in men's tennis. He became only the fifth man to win all four Grand Slam tournaments in his career.

Agassi was injured last year while playing in Rome, where, after losing a tough match to Pat Rafter, he showed reporters his taped-up shoulder. But that match also showed signs that Agassi had regained his impressive shot-making skills.

It was at the Foro Italico ``where I started to feel confident and the start of the most incredible year of my life,'' Agassi said.

Asked if he had the same drive heading into the French Open, the American didn't hesitate: ``Being defending champion in Paris is nothing short of an honor. That will be motivation on its own.''

Pete Sampras is the only top player missing from Rome, part of the Tennis Masters Series.

No player has dominated on the European circuit this season, but Pioline, the winner at Monte Carlo, looked sharp in his match against Chris Woodruff, winning 6-1, 6-1.

Agassi played just tough enough against the slow-moving Martin, whose left ankle and knee were heavily taped, rarely having to raise his game. But he set up the first-set victory with a superb lob and contained Martin's serve in the tiebreaker.