Training pays off
Trim defending champion Agassi a heavy favorite
Updated: Friday January 26, 2001 3:17 PM
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) -- Don't be misled by the bald head. At age 30, Andre Agassi is in the best shape of his life.
The results of an arduous training regimen are evident in his thighs, which like a sprinter's are disproportionately thick and muscular. Clearly this is not a player on his last legs.
Agassi appears capable of playing 10 sets a day, and he'll be required to go no more than five in Sunday's Australian Open final. The trim defending champion is a heavy favorite to win his seventh Grand Slam title and his third at Melbourne Park when he faces 15th-seeded Frenchman Arnaud Clement.
With an impressive run to the final, Agassi appears poised for a big year. Younger rivals have gone into retirement (Jim Courier) or are contemplating it (Patrick Rafter), and even Pete Sampras shows signs of decline. But the enigmatic Agassi, whose interest in tennis has waned at times during a 15-year career, now seems committed to making the most of his remarkable talent.
"As you get older, you make choices and hopefully take a step closer to who it is you want to be," he said. "I have goals. I'm out here to win. I'm out here to hopefully add some more titles and hopefully handle myself in a certain way in the process.
"I fall short many times, and that's the part that I think inspires you to get up the next day -- that you can do things a little better."
It's unlikely the sixth-seeded Agassi will fall short Sunday. There's no French word for underdog, but Clement may not have many groundstrokes left after needing 4 hours, 8 minutes Friday to beat countryman Sebastien Grosjean 5-7, 2-6, 7-6 (4), 7-5, 6-2.
"If you play Andre, you've got to be physically at your best," Clement said. "I'm fairly confident against him."
The final lacks the sizzle of Agassi's semifinal matchup against Rafter, the golden boy of Australian sports who was playing in Melbourne for perhaps the last time.
But there's slim chance of a letdown by Agassi, who remembers well last year's U.S. Open. Shaken by illnesses in his family, he lost to Clement in the second round.
"He's certainly playing better now than when I beat him," said Clement, the first Frenchman to reach the Australian Open final since Jean Borotra in 1928.
So far, Agassi has avoided the upsets that weeded out other top players. The stars of tennis' new generation -- Gustavo Kuerten, Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt, Magnus Norman -- were all gone by the fourth round, while Agassi advanced to his 12th Grand Slam final and his first as a thirtysomething.
His staying power was particularly evident in a five-set win over Rafter on a warm, humid night. The Aussie, sweating profusely, was hobbled by cramps in the final two sets, while Agassi remained fresh at the finish.
"Andre," Rafter said, "makes you work very hard."
He does it by hitting the ball cleanly and consistently set after set until his opponent's strokes break down. Always regarded as a great front-runner, Agassi twice has come from behind at Melbourne.
He may have won the tournament in December. While many players take the month off and enter the year's first Grand Slam event rusty and flabby, Agassi stepped up his training back home in Las Vegas.
"It's really only enjoyable at the end of the day, when the work's behind you," he said. "Putting your feet up and knowing you worked hard -- that part always feels good."
Does he have the stamina to remain at his best all year? After winning the 2000 Australian Open, he failed to reach another Grand Slam final.
But if he can sustain his level of the past two weeks, he'll be a threat at the other major tournaments. The last player to sweep all four in a single year was Rod Laver in 1969, when he was 31.
Agassi turns 31 in April.
"It requires a lot," Agassi said. "There's no saying it can't be done, but I think we're a lot closer to seeing Mark McGwire's home run record being beat that we are to seeing someone win four Grand Slams in the same year in the men's game."
Agassi knows this: He has no chance for a sweep in 2001 if he loses Sunday.