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String Quartet
S.L. Price
June 14, 1999
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
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June 14, 1999

String Quartet

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

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His time came. He got out of his chair and started for the baseline, rushing pigeon-toed across the red clay. Stubbled head gleaming, eyes as big as quarters, a large towel draped over his left shoulder: All of it looked familiar, but different too, for here, at the defining moment of his career, Andre Agassi was becoming a new man. Not everyone experiences a cleansing redemption, but on Sunday, June 6, at 6:28 p.m. Paris time, Agassi did. The sellout crowd at Court Central rallied shouts back and forth—"Med-ved-ev!" "Ag-as-si!"—but no one doubted who had taken hold of the 1999 French Open. Agassi hurried to a ball boy and held out his racket. The boy placed three balls on it; Agassi handed him the towel. Agassi turned, flipped one ball away, shoved another in his pocket. Two words kept spinning through his mind: No regrets.

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 Ríos'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 whisdes 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."

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