Agassi Survives First Round, Stumble

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Andre Agassi stumbled on the stairs and very nearly out of the Australian Open on Monday, coming perilously close to the most humiliating defeat in Grand Slam history.


Agassi had never even heard of qualifier Gaston Etlis, an Argentinian ranked No. 133 and playing in his first major tournament, but learned more about him than he cared to in a 3-6, 7-6 (7-2), 4-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-3 victory.


Never before in Grand Slam history had a defending champion lost in the first round to a qualifier, and only once before had a defending men's champion gone out in his first match -- Roscoe Tanner at the Australian in 1977.


On a day of perfect weather and a record crowd of 22,438, Etlis played a crafty game of drop shots, lobs and angled groundstrokes. His accuracy more than his power accounted for his 28 aces against the No. 2 seed in a 3-hour, 16-minute duel.


Agassi looked sluggish and played cautiously after banging his right knee when he missed a step on a metal staircase in his hotel suite Sunday night.


"It just proves it doesn't matter how much money you've got, you can still fall downstairs," Agassi's coach, Brad Gilbert said. "I would have paid $500 not to have watched that match."


Agassi wore a thick bandage around his right knee, which swelled up Sunday and hurt, he said, as if he'd been hit by a hammer when he missed a step coming down the staircase carrying his tennis bag. He said the bruise inflamed tendons and nerves in his knee, which he treated with ice and anti-inflammatory pills.


"He's favoring his knee," Gilbert said as he watched Agassi struggle.


Etlis' first serves, barely more than 160 kilometers per hour at times, clipped the corners or skipped off the "T" up the middle, perfect placements that even Agassi, the game's best returner, often couldn't touch.


Etlis led 4-0 in the second set, and was close to winning at 5-3 in the fourth-set tiebreaker.


"I had the urge to call home to Buenos Aires," Etlis said of his lead in the fourth. "I wanted to call my father, my mother, my coach."


A day after 39-degree Celsius heat baked the courts for the final practices, temperatures dropped to the 20s Celsius to give the year's first Grand Slam event a pleasant kickoff.


American Michael Chang, No. 5, became the first seeded player to win, routing Czech David Rikl 6-2, 6-1, 6-2 in 90 minutes.


No. 8 Jim Courier squeaked past Belgian Johan Van Herck 7-5, 7-6 (7-1), 6-4. Despite winning the Australian in 1992 and 1993, Courier showed little enthusiasm on court and sounded even less confident off it.


No. 6 Yevgeny Kafelnikov had an easy time beating Fabrice Santoro 6-1, 6-1, 7-5, while No. 9 Wayne Ferreira struggled to beat Jonathan Stark, 6-2, 6-1, 3-6, 3-6, 7-5.


In women's matches, No. 3 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario beat Beate Reinstadler 6-2, 6-2, No. 6 Gabriela Sabatini beat Shaun Stafford 6-0, 6-1, No. 13 Chanda Rubin beat Rachel McQuillan 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, and No. 15 Naoko Sawamatsu beat Catalina Cristea 4-6, 6-2, 6-1.


The only seed to fall Monday was women's No. 12 Natasha Zvereva of Belarus, a 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 loser to Israel's Anna Smashnova.


Top seeds Pete Sampras and Monica Seles begin play Tuesday.


Seles is heavily favored with the absence of the world's co-No. 1 player, Germany's Steffi Graf. Graf required minor surgery last month and is not ready to play in Australia.


(For other results, see Scorecard.)