Not yet. The security guard stops them all; Andre Agassi in front, Michael Stich behind and breathing down his neck, the horseshoe of beefy bodyguards surrounding them both. The guard, listening to his walkie-talkie crackle above the murmur that is quickening to a roar, waits for permission to bring the U.S. Open final to Louis Armstrong Stadium.
The lobby of the players' lounge fills with the name: "Andre!"..."Come on, Agassi!"..."Pump it up, Andre!" Agassi doesn't hear. Outside the door, hundreds of faces shift; they see him through the glass. It is 4 p.m. on this September Sunday, a hint of fall in the air. Agassi doesn't feel it. His face is blank, eyes staring deep into nothing. His body is shaking.
He is hopping from foot to foot, yes, but there is more than that. Agassi's shoulders, arms, head—all of him—are quivering. "There's no way this guy's coming here and taking my title," he says to his coach, tour veteran Brad Gilbert. He can't wait to move. Stich tries not to notice. "O.K., let's go," says the guard, and they surge into the waiting crowd, cameras clicking and popping above Agassi's head. The fans fall in and follow Agassi the hundred yards into the stadium.
"He is ridiculously large," Todd Martin had said after Agassi dispatched him in the semifinals the day before, but Martin was talking only of Agassi's fame, of this kind of mob scene and Barbra and Brooke and the hair that makes young girls titter. Martin wasn't speaking of tennis or of the massive talent Agassi came perilously close to wasting or of the fact that on Sunday, Agassi would arrive at a place few believed he was capable of reaching. Yes, Agassi, who was unseeded, defeated five seeded players en route to winning the U.S. Open, picked Stich apart in the final, 6-1, 7-6, 7-5, and then fell to his knees in the tournament's most indelible moment. But Agassi is suddenly the biggest thing in tennis because he proved himself serious at last, and an Agassi with purpose is simply gigantic.
"I feel I should have four or five Grand Slam titles now, no question about that," Agassi said the day before the event at Flushing Meadow began. "It will be disappointing if I can't accomplish the things I'm capable of, but more than that, I'll regret it if I don't give myself the chance. And the way to do that is by working my ass off. I'm disappointed I didn't win this tournament in '88, '89, '90, disappointed I didn't win the French Open in '90, '91, disappointed I haven't made it down to Australia yet—but those are things I'm going to start doing now."
So he did. But besides Agassi, who would have predicted this? Coming into the U.S. Open, top dog Pete Sampras was nursing an injury, Jim Courier was mulling withdrawal, and the 20th-ranked Agassi—absent from the final of a Grand Slam event since he won Wimbledon in 1992—was making news only by complaining about an attempt to juice the game with rock-and-roll during a tune-up tournament in New Haven, Conn. Yet by Sunday evening, tennis had gotten its biggest push since Hurricane Connors blew through Queens in 1991, and it should have come as little surprise. Nothing shakes up country clubbers more than the yearly fortnight in New York.
Why? The players hate Flushing Meadow. Noisy, dirty and rude, it's about as suitable for tennis as Times Square. "It's like a nightmare," says Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the promising young Russian, and he's correct. That's why it's wonderful. Only the U.S. Open has the clout to yank the world's most coddled jocks out of their cocoons, slap them around and make them like it—or else. Sampras? The No. 1 player complained about "humps and bumps" on the Stadium Court, and two days later he got bumped all the way back to Florida. Boris Becker whined that the courts were too slow, and he never made it out of the first round. As for the eighth-seeded Andrei Medvedev, who crusaded last year against "poisoned" food, he never had a chance. After promising to detail more complaints once he finished playing, Medvedev was flung out in the second round. He skulked off without another word.
Such is the black magic of the place. Still, even connoisseurs of trash-town tennis were stunned by the savagery with which the men's draw was torn apart. For the first time since the tournament began seeding players, in 1927, the top three men were bounced before the quarterfinals—and a year that had seemed headed toward a coronation ended in anarchy. Sampras, winner of the Australian Open in January, had seemed on an unstoppable glide after easing to a second straight Wimbledon title in July, with the rest of the field following docilely behind. At the U.S. Open, however, an exhausted Sampras suffered an excruciating defeat that supplied the coup de grace to what had begun as a Grand Slam campaign. "It's been a lost summer for him," says Sampras's coach, Tim Gullikson.
After losing six weeks in July and August to tendinitis in his left ankle, Sampras came to Flushing Meadow sorely lacking in tennis conditioning. Talent carried him through three rounds, and until Peruvian baseliner Jaime Yzaga chugged into view, it seemed that Sampras might roll to his sixth Grand Slam title. Then something better happened. Sampras lost. More, Sampras lost well.
For those who complain that he is passionless, that he lacks personality, Sampras proved it all a lie. His feet cut raw by the hard court, spasms shooting up his back, Sampras found himself tiring against Yzaga. By the fifth set he was doubled over after each point, using his racket the way an old man uses a cane. Later he called it "the worst I have ever felt on a tennis court." Down 5-3, with Yzaga serving for the match, Sampras battled his own body to break serve and then held serve to square the set at 5-5. "I wasn't going to give up," said Sampras after succumbing 7-5.