Andre Agassi, bidding to become the first overseas male player to win four Australian Open titles, is in better shape than ever, his coach Darren Cahill said yesterday.
The number two seed takes on fellow American Brian Vahaly in the first round in Melbourne today, fiercely determined to exorcise the demons of last year, when Agassi pulled out of the season-opening grand slam with a wrist injury.
"Last year was a long year and Andre was playing catch-up [after] the wrist injury. But his preparation for the Australian Open started the moment he lost in Shanghai," said Cahill, recalling the Tennis Masters Cup in November.
"He is fitter than I have ever seen him and probably faster around the court. He is incredible."
The 32-year-old Agassi has already sent a warning to world number one Lleyton Hewitt, beating Frenchman Sebastien Grosjean 6-2, 6-3 to win the Kooyong Classic warm-up event on Saturday.
"Andre was very pumped up at Kooyong and the last two times he won there he won the Australian Open. That's a pretty good record," said Cahill.
Cahill tipped Agassi and Hewitt to reach the final in Melbourne on January 26 and predicted another tight race for the year-ending number one spot in 2003.
"Andre and Lleyton are going to have a great year again. A final between number one and number two? It is a great story at his age and there is no end in sight for Andre," said Cahill, who used to coach Hewitt until he was fired at the end of 2001.
Agassi, who stepped up his already punishing training regime over Christmas in preparation for the Australian Open, won here in 1995 and then back-to-back in 2000 and 2001, the last time he tasted grand slam success.
"Andre peaked at the US Open with that great match against [Pete] Sampras. He had a great year last year but no grand slam title. This time he feels ready," said Cahill.
Agassi will be desperate to end that particular drought and win an eighth grand slam singles title after losing to Sampras in the US Open final.
All roads are likely to lead to Hewitt, but Agassi is not about to flinch, according to Cahill.
Hewitt pumped up
Top seed Lleyton Hewitt will face experienced campaigner Magnus Larsson in the first round of next week's Australian Open.
The world number one will open his bid to become the first Australian to win his home grand slam in 27 years tomorrow.
But entering his 16th year as a professional, Larsson will be no pushover.
The rangy Swede -- a Top 10 player in 1995 -- has already won three matches in qualifying and will be match-tough on the Melbourne Park hard courts.
Certainly Hewitt knows it will be no easy match and he will have to hit form immediately.
"I feel comfortable at the moment. I feel relaxed enough," he said.
"But you just don't know really until you go out there and see how you go.
"The first few rounds I find in grand slams, if you can get through those matches, I feel like I've played enough big matches now that I'm going to get better and better as the tournament goes on."
The last Australian man to win in Melbourne was Mark Edmondson who, in 1976, became the only recorded unseeded player to win the men's singles title here.
"Everyone knows that I love challenges and the Australian Open for me is a goal," Hewitt said.