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Agassi roars late to win U.S. Open title in five-set thriller
Posted: Monday September 13, 1999 01:24 AM
NEW YORK (AP) -- Andre Agassi never lost his serve or his nerve, even when Todd Martin had him reeling.
Closing out one of the greatest summers in tennis history, Agassi came up with his most spectacular shots in a dominating fifth set Sunday to capture his second U.S. Open.
No shot was better, or more crucial, than his lunging return from off the court that broke Martin's serve and spirit early in the fifth set and paved the way to a 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-7 (2-7), 6-3, 6-2 victory.
Agassi's fifth Grand Slam title ended a summer run that began with his surprising surge to the French Open championship and continued with his runner-up finish to Pete Sampras at Wimbledon. No man since Ivan Lendl in 1986 had gone to three straight Grand Slam finals in the same year.
No man had fought back to win the U.S. Open from a 2-1 deficit in sets since John Newcombe in 1973, but that's exactly what Agassi had to do in a 3-hour, 23-minute match against an inspired Martin playing some of the finest tennis of his life.
"It was disappointing that somebody had to lose," Agassi said. "He played so well, I felt I was hanging by a thread for much of the match. He was executing in ways that were giving me all sorts of problems.
"When he aims for the lines, he doesn't miss. I had to make every point incredibly important. It was crucial that I take care of my service games because I knew I was not going to get many chances."
Martin always had all the tools of a champion -- the big serve, the sweet groundstrokes, the heart of a fighter -- and he almost became one at age 29 in the first five-set final at the Open in 11 years.
After losing his first service and the first set, Martin went toe-to-toe with Agassi for the next two sets, staying with him through long rallies and clubbing him with aces to force a pair of tiebreakers that he won with unexpected ease.
But Agassi, who guaranteed himself the No. 1 ranking after beating Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the semifinals, responded the way the best player in the world should.
He bore down on Martin's serve early in the fourth set and broke him to change the tenor of the match. On one point in that game, Agassi almost knocked Martin out, literally, slamming an overhead from pointblank range that missed Martin's skull by inches.
"I was going to make sure I was under the net by the time he hit it," Martin said with a laugh. "My racket was still up there. I think he did go for me, but if he had been more accurate, I think I would have hit a winner."
Martin never recovered. Though he ran his ace total to 23 -- 16 more than Agassi -- he never could find a way to break Agassi's serve. When Agassi's return clipped the net cord and handcuffed Martin to break him again at the end of the fourth set, the outcome seemed certain.
Agassi didn't recall any five-setter in which he held his serve throughout. But Martin, who will move up to No. 4 in the rankings, knew it was more than Agassi's serve that beat him.
"More than anything else," Martin said, "I thought it was just the relentless pressure that he put on me, not just with his serve, not just with his feet, not just with his returns, but every game, he seemed to be there."
Agassi made it five games in a row when he won the first three in the final set, and he closed out the match by breaking Martin one more time.
"I'll tell you what, how can you ask for anything more than two Americans in the final of the U.S. Open playing a great five-set match?" Agassi told the crowd after accepting the trophy and the winner's check for $750,000.
"Win or lose, this is the greatest time of my life. I'll never forget New York right here."
Martin hardly looked like an unhappy loser. He knew he had given all he could in a tournament in which he had almost been taken in two previous five-setters, including one against a qualifier in the first round and another against No. 9 Greg Rusedski in the fourth round. After the match with Rusedski, Martin was so drained he needed to be rehydrated intravenously.
"It's hard to say which one's going to mean more," Martin said, referring to the Rusedski and Agassi matches. "One finished with euphoria, and one finished with pleasure in the moment, just thoroughly enjoying being in the arena, albeit not being able to win that last point."
The match was only the fifth all-American men's final at the U.S Open in the 32 years of the open era, and the matchup of two 29-year-olds was the oldest since 39-year-old Ken Rosewall lost to 22-year-old Jimmy Connors in 1974.
From Paris to New York, Agassi has sizzled this summer with 35 victories in 39 matches.
"I don't think until the middle of Paris that I let my shots fly in big situations," Agassi said. "It wasn't until after Paris that I developed that sense of focus and confidence."
Three of his losses came against Sampras, who had been seeded No. 1, but pulled out of the Open with a back injury the day before he was to play in the first round.
With Sampras gone, and two-time defending champion Patrick Rafter soon to follow with a shoulder injury, the top half of the draw was open for everyone. Martin seized the opportunity and survived his close matches to reach a Grand Slam final for the second time in his career. He had gone to the 1994 Australian Open final, where he lost to Sampras, and now he can say he lost to the other dominant player of the decade.
Agassi had hoped to play Sampras again to get a measure of revenge for his Wimbledon beating. Against Martin, he faced a player who was almost, but not quite, as tough.
When Agassi won the French, he joined Roy Emerson, Rod Laver, Don Budge and Fred Perry as the only men to win all four major tournaments in their career. Now, perhaps, with his second U.S. Open, Agassi is on his way to a double career Grand Slam.
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