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Agassi's Loss Stings, but It Doesn't Halt Buzz

By Bill Dwyre, Times Staff Writer The triumphant return wasn't. The story of Andre Agassi's reappearance in Davis Cup play for the United States on Friday turned into a story of a sterling performance by a Croatian with a tough-to-pronounce last name. When Ivan Ljubicic took Agassi out in straight sets, including an embarrassing 7-0 tiebreaker in the second set, it took a little off the warm-and-fuzzy that has surrounded this first-rounder at the Home Depot Center in Carson. The soon-to-be 35 Agassi, last seen playing tennis for his country five years ago in a quarterfinal match at the Forum, suddenly reacquired that lovin' team feeling. That meant that this Davis Cup event, even a first-rounder against a European country not exactly on the vacation list of most American tourists, could be sold and branded and marketed and all that corporate lingo that gives sports officials rapid heartbeats these days. Instead of spinning and slick-selling the public, the U.S. Tennis Assn., and the international Davis Cup people, had a Porsche in the showroom, not a Yugo painted like one. So 6,021 turned out on a Friday afternoon, in a stadium nicely suited to an early-round Davis Cup match. They called it a sellout, and technically they could, because they covered all four corners with decorative fabric with the flags of the two countries. Nice touch, decent ambience. (But why not let a bunch of kids sit there for free, an even better way to avert the ever-present fear of branders and marketers that an ESPN camera will swing around and show lots of empty seats?) This had all the Davis Cup feel not allowed at other tennis events, where noise, rowdiness and normal fan behavior is viewed like a crying baby in church. In Davis Cup in general, and at Carson on Friday, you had drums and flags and noise sticks and people with painted faces and lots of badly timed shouts of encouragement and even lots of ribbing and poor taste, such as the guy who shouted at Agassi, just before he was to lose: "Go home, Steffi." They had a pep band try that at Center Court in Wimbledon and even a couple of strange guys, one with a terrible Mohawk haircut, who apparently were paid by somebody to take the court during breaks and juggle beanbags and balance ladders on their chins. To be clear, the Davis Cup is back in Los Angeles for three reasons:

Anschutz Entertainment Group, which brought us the Home Depot Center after it brought us Staples Center, assumed that it would build this place and they would come. It hustles hard to make sure they do. The new president of the USTA is Franklin Johnson. He is from Los Angeles and wanted one of his first official functions in his backyard. It is March, narrowing home-venue choices for the U.S. team to Florida, California, Arizona and 500 other arenas surrounded by snow piles and slushy roads. All was not lost with Agassi's defeat, other than a slight decrease in volume of the buzz over this event. Andy Roddick Agassi called him the "real star of this team" got the U.S. even in the second match with a four-set win over young Mario Ancic. But these days, any Agassi loss in a high-profile match triggers the inevitable temptation to see end-of-career clouds on the horizon. Agassi himself fueled that a bit with his postmatch comments, and Ljubicic (that's LOO-bi-chitch) chimed in, albeit carefully. "I was pretty uncomfortable from the get," Agassi said. "I just never settled in. I got what I deserved out there." And later, "I was useless, to be quite honest, as far as being clear on what was going on out there." Ljubicic, 25, after recalling how overwhelming it was to play Agassi for the first time years ago and making it clear that he still considers Agassi a great player capable of winning a major event, admitted that Agassi is "probably not the same," and adding, "I think he is obviously a little slower than he used to be." But the temptation to read too much into this Agassi defeat must be resisted. This one was very simple. Ljubicic, his world ranking just five spots below Agassi's No. 9, is a great player just coming into his own. To date this year, he has gotten to four finals, and the fact that he lost all four of them is mitigated by who his opponent was three of those times, the current maestro of the game, Roger Federer. Ljubicic is hot right now. But Agassi, while not at his level at the moment, is still so good, and so capable of bouncing back from these things, that everybody who counts him out always regrets it. Consider this: One more win and one more loss for the U.S. will put Agassi against the young, talented and likely-to-be-overwhelmed Ancic in the deciding match Sunday. That could bring the triumphant return, just slightly delayed.

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