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Earthquake, Flood. Tears. Sex. Baldness. The Australian Open had everything. All it needed was a sound track, starting with When the Levee Breaks. You want breakthroughs? There was Mary Pierce, displaying roundhouse strokes and lifting the first major trophy of her career, eyes welling. There was Pete Sampras, tearful as well, suffering a loss but winning the sympathy of the world. Then there was Andre Agassi, looking more like a computer virus than a tennis player in his stripes and checks but at last playing like a champion instead of a phenomenon.
It was a natural disaster saga, it was a buddy movie, but more than anything, the first Grand Slam tournament of 1995 was about coming of age. It was exactly that for Pierce, the lithe, expressive 20-year-old who showed she just may be the next dominant force in the women's ranks by flattening Arantxa S�nchez Vicario of Spain 6-3, 6-2 in only her second Grand Slam final. It was a moment of passage for Agassi, who defeated an emotionally spent Sampras 4-6, 6-1, 7-6 (8-6), 6-4 for his second straight Grand Slam victory. At last Agassi has blended his talent and personality with consistency, serving notice that he will be pursuing Sampras's No. 1 ranking this season.
It was also a defining moment for Sampras, whose valiant attempt to defend his title while his friend and coach, Tim Gullikson, was hospitalized—having suffered what appeared to be a stroke in mid-tournament—ended in poignant failure. Twice in this fortnight Sampras recovered from two sets down to win matches, the most stirring rally coming against Jim Courier in the quarterfinals, when Sampras stood on the court and sobbed. Sampras won the crowds, but his fatiguing matches and worry over Gullikson (whose illness remained undiagnosed as of Monday) were too much for him. "It just broke my heart," he said of Gullikson's sickness.
The two weeks were less tumultuous for Agassi, who seemed different from the moment he stepped off the plane for his first appearance at the Australian. It was as if his decision to reduce his flowing peroxide locks to fuzz had propelled him to a moment of truth. The new 'do, which he got at a salon near girlfriend Brooke Shields's New York City apartment during the off-season, was clearly a point of departure, and Agassi didn't care a whit that it appalled his fans. What he says of his haircut could be applied to the new look of his game: 'To be honest, I think it was overdue."
Agassi was still a sight to see. Australians labeled him the Pirate King, for the 'do-rag on his head, or the Black Prince, for his dark spiky hair. But off the court he did his best to lie low, renting a two-bedroom house in the Melbourne neighborhood of Toorak. He made banana pancakes at home, haunted local Italian bistros or stopped in for a sandwich at the local Subway. His idea of a big night was to rent a slasher movie or an action film.
Agassi was determined to mount a convincing follow-up to his U.S. Open victory, which catapulted him to No. 2 at the end of 1994. Sure, he won Wimbledon in 1992, but he had never put two Grand Slam wins back-to-back, which is what it takes to be No. 1. To that end he showed up single-minded, accompanied by only his savvy coach. Brad Gilbert, and his best friend and trainer, Gil Reyes. The rest of his cadre remained at home. The time that he formerly put into his hair, he said, was redirected to his tennis. "It used to take about 27 minutes a day, now it takes 6�," he said.
The result of Agassi's decision to focus: He swept into the final without losing a set. "I've come to terms with myself, and with my tennis," he said after a practice session last week. "It used to be, I felt I had to live up to something, I had to validate what I did in TV commercials. Now I still have fun with the clothes and the commercials and stuff, but everything has its rightful place."
And, it appeared, its rightful movie. On the eve of his round-of-16 meeting with Australia's young marquee idol Patrick Rafter, a big server ranked 21st in the world, Agassi picked a Freddy Krueger movie, relishing the gore. The next day, neither the shrieking girls nor the sign that said rafter is sex disturbed his concentration as he beat the Aussie silly, 6-3, 6-4, 6-0. Before his semifinal match against Aaron Krickstein, he watched Die Hard and Die Hard 2: Die Harder. Score: 6-4, 6-4, 3-0, before Krickstein retired with a torn groin muscle.
The night before the final it was The Exorcist. Agassi and Reyes enjoyed pasta followed by ice cream and then turned out the lights while they watched the flick. Suddenly fireworks exploded somewhere in the neighborhood, startling them. Reyes rose to take a look outside. "I'm not staying here all alone," Agassi said, creeping behind him. It was his only moment of fear during the fortnight.
Certainly he never wavered in the final. Sampras relied heavily on his serve, with 28 aces, but his limber arm could not compensate for the heaviness in his legs or in his heart. He struck an uncharacteristic 50 unforced errors, while Agassi sat back at the baseline and demonstrated that he is the best pure hitter in the game. The match turned on the third-set tiebreaker, when Sampras blew two set points—then never got another opportunity.