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Elements and circumstances could pose problem for U.S.

Published Sep. 26, 2005

With John McEnroe making his debut as U.S. captain, Andre Agassi leads an injury-depleted team against Zimbabwe in the first round of the Davis Cup this weekend, and Australia opens defense of its title against Switzerland.

In other World Group ties, the Czech Republic hosts Britain, Italy travels to Spain, Russia is at home against Belgium, Slovakia plays host to Austria, France plays at Brazil, and Germany is home against the Netherlands.

Fresh off his victory at the Australian Open, his third Grand Slam title in eight months, Agassi spearheads a makeshift U.S. team.

With Pete Sampras and Todd Martin forced out by injuries, McEnroe called on Chris Woodruff and Rick Leach. Zimbabwe is led by the veteran Davis Cup combination of brothers Byron and Wayne Black.

Agassi opens play today against Wayne Black, and Woodruff faces Byron Black in the second singles. In Saturday's doubles, Leach and Alex O'Brien, who never have played doubles together before, will play Wayne Black and Kevin Ullyett. In Sunday's reverse singles, it will be Agassi against Byron Black and Woodruff versus Wayne Black.

The matches will be played on a hardcourt surface in front of a sellout crowd at the 4,000-seat indoor National Sports Center.

This will be the first time a U.S. Davis Cup team has played in Africa. The players have complained about the jet lag (Agassi flew to Zimbabwe from Melbourne) and the altitude (5,000 feet above sea level).

"I consider us a slight favorite," McEnroe said. "But we know it's going to be very difficult. These are not conditions that a lot of tennis matches are played under, this type of altitude. (Zimbabwean players) have obviously spent a lot more time here than us. So it's not going to be easy for us. But none of us came out here to lose this."

Said Agassi: "It's going to be quite an experience. It's never easy playing away. I think it's going to be incredibly difficult. I think we'll be fortunate to get through this weekend."

But Byron Black said Agassi gives the Americans the edge, at least on paper.

"I still think we're obviously the underdogs," he said. "Andre is playing the best tennis of anyone on the planet right now. He's won three of the last four Grand Slams. We're going to give it a shot against Andre. We're not counting anything out. But, obviously, the guy we're aiming to beat is the No. 2 player, Chris Woodruff. Hopefully, the doubles could be the crucial decider."

The match has taken on added significance with the appearance of McEnroe, who after years of lobbying recently was appointed U.S. captain. McEnroe worked hard to convince Agassi and Sampras to play. But Sampras withdrew after sustaining a hip flexor in his five-set loss to Agassi in the Australian semifinals.

"I guess I was living in a dream world thinking Pete was going to play," McEnroe said.

PAN PACIFIC OPEN: Lilia Osterloh upset second-seeded Mary Pierce 6-7 (3-7), 6-4, 6-4 to advance to the quarterfinals in Tokyo.

The 21-year-old American was a third-round loser in the qualifying series Monday but was chosen as a replacement for second-ranked Lindsay Davenport, who withdrew because of an injured left hamstring.

The 87th-ranked Osterloh faces No. 65 Katarina Srebotnik, who beat qualifier Irina Selyutina 7-5, 2-6, 6-3.

Martina Hingis, the defending champion, plays fifth-seeded Anna Kournikova today. Kournikova advanced 6-2, 1-6, 6-1 over Nicole Pratt.

Alexandra Stevenson, the first women to make the Wimbledon semis as a qualifier last summer, made a second-round exit with a 6-4, 6-1 loss to Chanda Rubin.

No. 4 seed Amanda Coetzer advanced 7-6 (7-2), 6-1 over Natasha Zvereva.