Work in Sports
Smoldering start, fiery finish
Agassi downs Kafelnikov to win second Australian title
Posted: Sunday January 30, 2000 09:19 PM
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) -- Better and better as time goes on, Andre Agassi claimed his second Australian Open and sixth Grand Slam title Sunday in an artistic and bruising victory over Yevgeny Kafelnikov.
Five of Agassi's most exquisite, feathery drop shots and dozens of powerful groundstrokes sapped the strength and spirit from the defending champion in a 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 triumph.
At 29, Agassi left no doubt that he rules men's tennis. In less than a year, he has won the French, U.S. and Australian Opens and finished runner-up at Wimbledon.
This time he put the exclamation point on his win with three aces at up to 123 mph in the last game.
"It's been crazy," Agassi said of his run to the top the past year after sinking as low as No. 141 near the end of 1997. "It does take a lot out of you, but it also gives you a lot. This is what we play for. I was out there training on Christmas Eve. When you give yourself the best shot and you do it, that's what makes all your hard work worth it. There's no feeling like it.
"It feels to me like the same thing as winning the lottery for everyone else."
Agassi, the first player to reach four straight major finals since Rod Laver won the Grand Slam in 1969, pushed his career earnings to nearly $20 million with the $485,000 winner's check.
"I think he's hitting his stride right now," Agassi's coach, Brad Gilbert, said. "Ultimately he wants to keep improving. There are a lot more titles for him to win. He has three or four more good years left in him."
Agassi thanked Gilbert and his trainer, Gil Reyes, for telling him over and over that his best would be good enough all the time as long as he stayed in peak shape. And though Agassi didn't mention girlfriend Steffi Graf, who sat between them in the stands, he saluted her as they exchanged smiles.
This final proved, as everyone thought, anticlimactic to Agassi's brilliant and dramatic victory over Pete Sampras in the semifinals. There were too many errors, too many mishits by both players this time, and little tension.
Agassi's path to this title was strewn with danger, from the brutal serves of Mark Philippoussis and Sampras to the all-around game of Kafelnikov.
"I had to earn it, but that makes it feel that much better," Agassi said.
"Yevgeny had to come out fast and he did," Agassi said. "I felt there was much more of a chance for me to run away with the match than for him to. But it quickly turned into a physical match and I liked that."
Agassi's time came quickly as he yielded only four points through his next four service games, then broke for a 5-4 lead with the help of two of the nine double-faults by Kafelnikov.
Agassi then came up with two stunning drop shots from the baseline that caught a flatfooted Kafelnikov by surprise and closed out the second set with a 116 mph serve that Kafelnikov netted.
"He's a good mover and plays five meters behind the baseline and takes a good clean swipe at the ball," Agassi said. "He's only looking to come in one time during a point. I thought if I could get him to come in a bit, it would make my power game more effective."
Though the match was even on the scoreboard, there was little doubt in Agassi's mind or in the thoughts of spectators that he was on his way to victory.
He breezed to a 4-0 lead, again slipping in the occasional drop among powerful groundstrokes, and won the set with ease.
"My legs started feeling heavy at the end of the third set," Kafelnikov said.
The only nervous moment from then on came as Kafelnikov was about to serve the fourth set when a man wearing a red mask and holding a video camera leaped to the court and took aim at the players. But guards rushed to grab him and pulled him away.
Agassi simply outlasted Kafelnikov in key rallies and didn't let him back in the match.
"I felt like somewhere in there, he got his second wind, but I felt like I had another gear to shift into," Agassi said.
Agassi's victory was his fourth straight over Kafelnikov and similar to the comeback he mounted from a 1-6 first-set loss in the U.S. Open semifinals last September.
Kafelnikov said before this match that he was surprised by Agassi's resilience in the Open, the way he fought back from a set down. Kafelnikov promised he would have to adjust to that this time if in the same position, but Agassi never gave him a chance.
"It's amazing how he can recover from losing the first set and continue to raise his game," Kafelnikov said. "That's the aspect he improved the most."