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Hingis, Chang, Agassi advance - Williams sisters to face off

MELBOURNE, Australia -- After an off year off form or simply off the tour former No. 1 Andre Agassi made a stumbling start in this year's first Grand Slam.

Then he began to look like the Agassi of old.

Coming back from a year-end slump and a strained stomach muscle, Michael Chang also had to struggle through his first-round Australian Open match Tuesday.

In contrast, women's defending champion Martina Hingis' match was easy enough to allow her to try out new strategies to defend her No. 1 ranking against a new wave of teen-agers.

Agassi took an early 3-1 lead, but then lost five straight games against Italian qualifier Marzio Martelli, ranked 133rd. Agassi let the second set's second game slip away after six break points and 11 deuces.

Then he rallied for a 3-6, 7-6 (7-3), 6-2, 6-2 victory, finishing the 2-hour, 22-minute match with a trademark play, forcing a short return and putting away a forehand crosscourt.

``Everybody is viewing it like a comeback. I'm just going back to work with a passion again,'' said Agassi, who had a 12-12 singles record on the regular tour last year, and 4-1 on the Challenger circuit, where he dropped down to try to regain his form after falling as low as No. 141.

``To be quite honest I was very surprised. In fact i felt a little nervous when I got out there. ... I just played really cautiously, and I didn't find my rhythm until after the second set,'' he added.

``My shots are there. I just have to get out there and play big-time tennis, and it's going to happen.''

Between an extended honeymoon and a wrist injury, he played only one of the four Grand Slams last year, reaching the fourth round of the U.S. Open. At the end of the year, he and Martelli were ranked about the same 122 for Agassi and 127 for Martelli, a teaching pro two years ago who is playing his third Grand Slam.

One big difference: Agassi, who since has climbed back to No. 87, has dlrs 13.37 million in prize money to dlrs 149,061 for Martelli, who served 25 aces in this match.

No. 3 seed Chang needed slightly more than three hours to overcome Denmark's Kenneth Carlsen 6-3, 7-6 (7-2), 5-7, 6-3.

Chang, who lost seven of eight matches at the end of last year, said that ``it was a good wake-up call for me and I learned quite a bit from it so I was able to make good use of the off season, relax and start off this year hopefully on a very fresh note.''

The muscle injury was not bothering him, he said.

In other men's matches, U.S. Open finalist Greg Rusedski, seeded fifth, served 27 aces in beating David Witt 7-6 (7-4), 6-3, 6-4. French Open champion and No. 12 Gustavo Kuerten won 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 against Spain's Jacobo Diaz.

No. 9 Marcelo Rios trounced South African Grant Stafford 6-1, 6-0, 6-3, and No. 16 Albert Costa beat Germany's Tommy Haas 7-6 (7-5), 6-2, 6-4.

Prominent among the losers were No. 8 Thomas Muster, who fell to Sweden's Jan Apell 6-4, 7-6 (7-5), 7-5, and No. 13 Goran Ivanisevic, beate6-2, 7-6 (7-3), 3-6, 6-4 by Dutch player Jan Siemerink.

Last year, Hingis used the Australian Open as a launching pad to the No. 1 ranking. She ended the year with three titles and one runner-up finish in the four Grand Slams, and a 75-5 match record overall.

But a week ago in a tuneup tournament, she lost 3-6, 6-4, 7-5 to Venus Williams.

``I can only learn from that loss in Sydney,'' Hingis said after beating German Wiltrud Probst 6-1, 6-2. ``I probably will change my strategy.''

Tuesday's match ``was a good win for me and and a good chance to try out a lot of things,'' she added.

Hingis served and volleyed, experimented with different angles and spins, or sometimes just waited for her opponent to miss.

She ended the 53-minute match with a serve and rush and two volleys into opposite corners.

With all the young players coming up, Hingis said, ``women's tennis is really at a high.''

Among those who hope to depose her, 16-year-old Anna Kournikova charged through her opening match with a 6-2, 6-1 victory over Katarina Studenikova of Slovakia.

Then there are 17-year-old Venus Williams, her 16-year-old sister Serena, and 15-year-old Mirjana Lucic of Croatia. The Williams sisters meet each other Wednesday in the second round.

In other women's matches, No. 7 Aranxta Sanchez Vicario ousted Taiwan's Janet Lee 6-0, 6-4, No. 9 Sandra Testud beat Spain's Gala Leon Garcia 6-3, 6-2, No. 10 Anke Huber rebounded for a 5-7, 6-0, 6-0 victory over France's Sarah Pitkowski, No. 11 Brenda Schultz-McCarthy edged Austrian Marion Maruska 7-6 (8-6), 7-5, No. 14 Dominique van Roost beat Canada's Rene Simpson 6-3, 6-2, and No. 16 Ai Sugiyama ousted Spain's Maria Antonio Sanchez Lorenzo 4-6, 6-1, 6-3.

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