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With a virtuoso comeback at the French Open, Andre Agassi claimed a place in history as only the fifth man to win all four Grand Slam events
Posted: Tuesday June 08, 1999 02:20 PM
By S.L. Price
There had been cause for so many. The three Wimbledons he blithely skipped early in his career. The two-year fade-out that left him ranked 141st in late 1997 and, he said, "embarrassed just to be on the court." Most haunting, perhaps, were the two losses he suffered at Roland Garros in the 1990 and '91 French finals -- to a 30-year-old Andres Gomez and then to a seemingly inferior Jim Courier -- matches that were supposed to certify his greatness but planted the seeds for all future questions about his heart.
Now, at 29 and in a Grand Slam event that he had been but one day of shoulder pain from not playing at all, Agassi made ready to issue his answer. After being just two points from defeat in the second round, after coming back from a set and two breaks down to beat defending champion Carlos Moya in the fourth round, after haplessly losing the first two sets to 100th-ranked Andrei Medvedev and staring down a third-set break point in the final, Agassi was suddenly standing at the baseline at 5-4 in the fifth set, serving for the only Grand Slam championship that had eluded him.
A cloud passed across the sun, covering the court in shadow. Medvedev bent, waiting. Agassi tossed up the ball, and as always before starting his swing, for one split second he froze.
It was a pivotal instant, and not just in Agassi's bid to become only the fifth man -- and the first since Rod Laver in the 1960s -- to win all four Slam events in his career. One could well argue that everything from the image of the men's game to the legacy of this French Open rode on a victory for Agassi. Consider: Until this final, the men's game in 1999 had been marked by Pete Sampras's withdrawal from the Australian Open; No. 1 Yevgeny Kafelnikov's remark that he doesn't care if he wins tour events; and Marcelo Rios's claim that the men's tour is "boring." While Medvedev, a 24-year-old Ukrainian, charmed Paris with his revitalized relationship with both tennis and his girlfriend, fellow pro Anke Huber, no one at NBC -- whose overnight ratings for the French men's final were 43% higher than last year's -- and no one on the ATP Tour had any illusion about which of the finalists would have greater impact on the game's fortunes. Agassi's star power and his highly publicized divorce from actress Brooke Shields meant big viewing numbers for the first time since -- who else? -- Agassi played in the 1995 U.S. Open final. Must See TV? For men's tennis in the '90s, there has been only one surefire hit: Suddenly Andre.
"Is beautiful for me, for tennis, if Agassi is in the final," surprise semifinalist Fernando Meligeni of Brazil said last week. "He has a lot of story. It's very beautiful for the players and the crowd to look at him play. It's good for tennis if he's in the top."
This French Open certainly owed Agassi. Always the circuit's most capricious Slam, it seemed intent on ending the century at its sadistic best. While fans endured a two-day citywide transportation strike, sudden rain delays and whipping winds, the men's draw produced three unseeded semifinalists for the second time in three years -- a feat no other Slam has achieved even once. Until Sunday's final, this Paris fortnight seemed destined to be remembered best for a grotesque on-court collision between 1998 Wimbledon champion Jana Novotna and her doubles partner, Natasha Zvereva -- which left Novotna writhing in the dust with a severely sprained ankle -- and for the appalling antics of women's No. 1 seed Martina Hingis. For the last two years the distaff tour has been riding a sweet wave of publicity and looking down its nose at the men's circuit, but after Hingis's astonishing meltdown in her 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 loss to Steffi Graf in Saturday's final, it has a problem. Hingis, the premier female player of her generation and the tour's standard-bearer, has revealed herself, at 18, to be a thoroughly disagreeable brat.
There had been earlier hints. Her cool put-downs of opponents had been chalked up to immaturity, but Hingis's public description of openly gay player Amelie Mauresmo as "half a man" at the '99 Australian Open had dismayed her peers. This spring the 30-year-old Novotna said that Hingis, in abruptly ending their doubles partnership, had told her that she was "old and slow." Hingis vehemently denies that -- though she says she likes playing with her new partner, 18-year-old Anna Kournikova, with whom she reached the French doubles final, because Kournikova is young and energetic -- but it's easy to imagine her saying it. In the summer of 1997, Hingis had said that Graf, then out with the knee injury that nearly sent her into retirement, was past her prime.
The day before the French women's final, Graf said Hingis's presumption hadn't motivated her recovery. "I know why I'm out there," she said. "I'm not touched much by it."
Then came Saturday. After taking a 6-4, 2-0 lead, Hingis grew irate when she hit a forehand that kissed the baseline yet was called out. The chair umpire refused to overrule the line judge, but Hingis, who had already received a warning for racket abuse, wouldn't drop the matter. First she marched around the net and all the way to Graf's baseline -- a glaring violation of etiquette -- and pointed out the mark allegedly left by the ball. Then, amid a cascade of whistles and boos, Hingis decided to sit in her chair until she received satisfaction. (She resumed playing after she received a point penalty that placed her one infraction from an automatic default.) "I've never seen that before," Graf said of Hingis's invasion. "Everybody knows you're never supposed to do that. I was stunned."
There was more. Hingis served for the match at 5-4, and when Graf broke her by repeatedly slicing that legendary backhand and winning a breathless 32-ball rally, Hingis unraveled. Graf took the second set and the first three games of the third. As the 18-year-old's prospects for taking the one Slam she hasn't won grew more remote by the minute, she became increasingly petulant, and the already pro-Graf crowd grew howlingly hostile to Hingis. Even while the tennis rose to a superb level -- this was the best match, men's or women's, of the tournament -- Hingis invited catcalls by slamming away one ball offered to her by a ball boy, by cheapening Graf's two match points with underhand serves and then, when it was all over, by bolting from the court and refusing to return for the awards ceremony until her mother, Melanie Molitor, came down from the stands and insisted she do so. Hugging and half-dragging her sobbing daughter, Molitor escorted her back onto the court.
Hingis doesn't disagree. Later, she said she found nothing objectionable about her behavior during or after the match. She insisted that she had outplayed Graf and that "it's probably too hard to understand me, the way I am, the way I play, because it just looks too easy." Asked if she had learned anything, Hingis said, "Come on. I think I learned enough just by standing there, having to go back out to the ceremony, just smile at everybody. I think I have a charisma. If the people don't see it, how my game is, [and think] that I don't deserve this tournament, O.K. There are next years to come. I'll show it to everybody that I can win this tournament."
For her part, the 29-year-old Graf said she'd never been in a match so "completely bizarre. Nothing even close." She'd never been in a Grand Slam event for which she'd felt so ill-prepared, either, yet somehow she became the first woman in the Open era to beat the top three seeds -- Hingis, No. 2 Lindsay Davenport and No. 3 Monica Seles -- en route to a Grand Slam title. Graf was so taken with her own effort, in fact, that she called it the greatest win of her career and announced that she had made her last appearance as a player at Roland Garros. "I can't be any better," she said.
Agassi knows the feeling. Like Graf, he hadn't sniffed a Grand Slam final in years. But in contrast to Graf's meteoric rise to greatness, Agassi's 13-year run has been a dismaying combination of gorgeous shotmaking and an inability to focus for long stretches. It was unclear which would win out: his talent or the tangents. Early in the tournament's first week, the 13th-seeded Agassi admitted that he couldn't tell if his career was something to be proud of or to regret. "I'm not sure how it will all play out," he said.
His off-court life has demonstrated the same confusion: The man who kneeled at his chair to pray just after the French final was the same man who, when asked after his second-round win if he'd been aided by his opponent's cramping, smiled and said, "Screw you very much." In that light it's no surprise to hear Agassi say that his divorce was "a good thing" or that he talked to Shields every day during the French Open. "She's working hard on a movie," he said. "She wanted to be here for the final. I wanted her to be here too. She's supported me the whole way. That's what we've built."
Still, that in this tournament Agassi would change how his game is perceived was something nobody could have predicted. A week before the French, he pulled out of a tournament in Dusseldorf because of an inflamed tendon in his right shoulder. The pain dogged his preparations for Paris, and if it had lasted another day, Agassi said, he wouldn't have played. Yet with this win Agassi, earring dangling, joined the august All-Grand Slams club of Fred Perry, Don Budge, Laver and Roy Emerson. Laver handed Agassi the trophy on Sunday, but an equally appropriate presenter would have been Jimmy Connors, the only man besides Agassi to have won Slams on three surfaces. And while Sampras's count of 11 Slam titles is out of Agassi's reach, he now owns the only one Sampras lacks. "He has a right to say he's a greater player than Pete," Medvedev said of Agassi. "It's an argument he deserves to have."
Because he earned it. Medvedev came out blazing in the opening two sets on Sunday, winning an amazing 100% of his first-serve points against the game's finest returner and going up 6-1, 6-2. But despite playing terribly and feeling "in shock," Agassi figured Medvedev couldn't maintain that level of play. He worked out the kinks in his backhand and pounced when Medvedev began to sag. Agassi won the third and fourth sets 6-4, 6-3. It had been 15 years since a man -- Ivan Lendl, in Paris -- clawed back from two sets down to win a Grand Slam final, but Agassi had no choice. On Saturday night, visions of 1990 and '91 had danced in his head. "It's hard to come so close to your dreams and not get there," Agassi would say after the match. "For me not to win today would have been devastating."
At 5-4 and 40-15 in the fifth set, Agassi tossed up the ball, hesitated and swung. It was 6:30 p.m. Paris time. He cracked the ball into the service box, wide to Medvedev's forehand. Medvedev jerked the return long. Agassi dropped his racket as the noise in Court Central swallowed him whole. His face crumpled in shock. He wept uncontrollably, but his tears weren't like Hingis's the day before. Medvedev came around the net, but it wasn't like the trespass of the day before, either. Medvedev grabbed Agassi. The two men hugged.
Later Agassi took the trophy in his hands and squeezed his eyes shut. He blew out a long breath, raised the cup above his head and again began to cry as the people shouted his name. It had all played out.
He regretted nothing.
Issue date: June 14, 1999
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