Agassi show puts Sampras in the shade

Click to follow
Pete Sampras had no need to pretend to stagger up the steps for the presentations after losing his Australian Open title to Andre Agassi, 4-6, 6-1, 7-6, 6-4, here yesterday. The world No 1's weariness became obvious during the crucial phases of th e final.

Agassi's pirate clothes were appropriate only in the sense that eventually there was swash on his side of the net and buckling on the other.

Sampras's heroics in recovering from two sets down in consecutive matches and then doing battle over four with Michael Chang in the semi-finals had drained him physically. Moreover, he had been affected emotionally by the illness of his coach, Tim Gullikson, and again had to choke back the tears during the post-match speeches.

In the circumstances, the champion needed to take advantage of every opportunity against his American compatriot on a hot, humid afternoon. He was unable to do so, and Agassi, the world No 2, took the title at his first attempt and moved a step closer tosupplanting his rival at the head of the game.

The crux came in the third set tie-break, when Sampras, having recovered from 0-3, had a set point at 6-4. He served wide to Agassi's forehand, and watched a fierce return clip the netcord on its way down the line.

"I knew he was going out wide on the big points on the duece side, and I kind of had that returner's hunch," Agassi said. "It just went my way. I got lucky there, to be quite honest."

When Agassi had a set point, with Sampras serving at 6-7, he converted it cleverly with an angled, backhand volley to the line and raised a fist in triumph to his coach, Brad Gilbert, and his trainer, Gil Reyes.

Whether or not Sampras noticed the gesture, he could hardly have been more demoralised. "I felt that was the match right there," he said. "In the fourth, he just kept on that high level of intensity and just broke me down."

By that stage, Sampras was moving so laboriously that he had to rely almost entirely on his serve. He accumulated 13 of 28 aces in the concluding set, when Agassi appeared to bide his time, but even the free points Sampras gleaned failed to raise his percentage of first serves above 51 for the match.

Agassi, in common with many of the 15,000 spectators, considered it to have been "kind of a strange match, in the sense that you could never be really sure who had the momentum".

Initially, it was with Sampras who, after a tentative start by both players, saved three break points in the ninth game and capitalised when Agassi double-faulted on set point in the 10th.

It was the first time in the tournament that Agassi's resolve had been tested, and he responded by winning six of the next seven games, emphasising that his strokes are not as shabby as his outfits.

Sampras had the first success in the third game of the third set, creating a break point with a winning volley after snapping the strings of his racket. Agassi immediately broke back with two fine backhands. In the remaining games en route to the tie-break, Agassi had six chances to his opponent's one.

Neither player conceded much on serve during the first eight games of the fourth set, Sampras opening with three aces and winning the seventh game with four. He produced three more before being broken to 4-5, Agassi passing him with a backhand down the line.

Having narrowly escaped being marooned by Friday's court flooding, Agassi decided not to tarry much longer, and finished the job with his 10th ace after two hours and 36 minutes. "He deserves to win," Sampras said. "He outplayed me."

The Las Vegan outplayed everbody in his path, proving that doubts about his fitness were unfounded. He also kept control of his tongue, which had almost talked him into disqualification towards the end of last year.

Agassi's victory means that both players will approach the French Open at the end of May with an opportunity to have their name inscribed on the four Grand Slam trophies of Wimbledon, the United States, France and Australia. Only four players in the history of the game have accomplished that: Fred Perry, Don Budge, Roy Emerson and Rod Laver.

Sampras was fancied to triumph on the slow clay of Paris last year, but foundered on his most difficult surface when faced with Florida's Jim Courier in the the quarter-finals. Agassi has lost twice in the final, to Andres Gomez in 1990 and Courier in 1991.

"Ironically enough," Agassi said, "the one I haven't won is the one I felt I should have won first. I was favourite in both my finals there, so that's a bit disappointing. It's very important for me to win the French. I want it. I want it as bad as I canwant a title."

Having won his first major championship in 1992 on Wimbledon's lawns, the surface considered least tailored to his groundstroke game, he is delighted to have transferred the hard-court form he displayed at the US Open last September to Australia's slightly more rubberised concrete.

"I've never really had two good years back to back," he said. "When I ended one strong I've started off the next one weak. So this was a big accomplishment for me to come down here and hit another level with my game. It is something that is going to havea strong impact on my career because I really believe now that I can keep forging ahead."

Gilbert believes it, too, as he indicated by counting off the Grand Slams on his fingers while Agassi was still on the court. "He wants the next two, the French and Wimbledon," said Agassi, whose response to the coach was: "At least do me the favour of just dealing with the French now, for crying out loud."