Agassi to face a champion on wave of emotion

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TENNIS When the point was made that Andre Agassi was sailing through his first Australian Open, it was not meant to be taken literally.

Within five minutes of the Las Vegan advancing to meet Pete Sampras in tomorrow's men's singles final, a freak storm caused the River Yarra to flood the Centre Court at Flinders Park.

But for the timing of Aaron Krickstein's decision to retire from their semi-final because of a groin injury, with Agassi leading, 6-4, 6-4, 3-0, the players would have been treading three inches of water on the rubberised concrete.

The irony is that yesterday's match was played indoors, beneath the stadium's retractable roof. Suddenly, the place was wetter than Wimbledon at its worst.

It was not the first time the Centre Court at the National Tennis Centre had been flooded. It happend in October, 1989, when Torvill and Dean performed at the stadium. On that occasion, the ice melted.

Geoff Pollard, the president of Tennis Australia, recalled that mishap yesterday when reassuring the public that the show would go on. "Our experience indicates that the court will be absolutely fine," he said.

Two years ago, when the organisers experimented with an electronic line-calling system on No 2 Court, water seeped into the incisions made to install the wiring, and the surface bubbled.

Not even Agassi was bubbling yesterday. Pleased though he was to have reached the final, he seemed as disappointed as the 15,000 spectators that Krickstein had not been fit enough to make a match of it. "It's tough to get back to hitting the ball at yourbest when you know the guy you're playing is not," he said.

Krickstein's career has been a catalogue of injuries, but none frustrated him as much as this one. "You work hard to get to this stage in a tournament, a big one," he said, "and to get injured at the beginning of the match is tough. Ironically, I'd been worried about a hamstring for three or four days, and then I pulled something else.''

So the all-American semi-finals whittled down to the finale everybody wants to see: Sampras, the world No 1, against Agassi, the world No 2; serve and volley versus return and drive; solid style versus showmanship.

Agassi arrived in Australia with his hair cropped, a set of baggy new clothes to wear, and a bandana to set them off. But in the past week Sampras has accomplished more by striving, rather than striving for effect.

The defending champion's one concession to emotion, his sobbing on court during the final set of the quarter-final against Jim Courier, was a human response to the illness of his coach, Tim Gullikson. It won him more friends than his elegant shot-making had achieved in the past.

Yet the tears were only one element of Sampras's dramatic journey to the final. Courier, the ninth seed, was demoralised when Sampras recovered from two sets down, as was Magnus Larsson, the 15th seed, in the previous round. On top of all that, sufficentstamina remained for Sampras to overcome Michael Chang in four sets in Thursday's semi-final.

Agassi, in contrast, has won six matches without really being tested, partly because of his level of performance, but also because none of a string of unseeded opponents offered a serious threat.

To use Agassi's words, his progress to the semi-final provided "incredible practice". Yesterday, because of Krickstein's injury, he did not even have to finish what was only his 18th set of the tournament.

Sampras has had little need of practice, and we must trust that two days off will replenish him. If he is able to raise his game again, it will be interesting to see how Agassi responds to being under put under pressure for the first time.

"I think the dynamics of the match on Sunday is going to bring out the best in me," Agassi said. "You can argue both sides, whether it's good to have a tough match under your belt and then compromise your fitness, or whether it's better to get through and be fresh and ready to play. I feel like I'm hitting the ball well, and I feel good. Every match, I've been anticipating a tough one, and, hopefully, come Sunday, it will be a good one.''

That said, Agassi, who has experienced joy and disappointment in Grand Slam finals, winning Wimbledon and the United States Open after losing twice in Paris and once in New York, is more concerned with the result rather than the quality of the match.

"It certainly has all the ingredients necessary for a great match," he said, "but I'm going to go out there and try to win. If he's at his best, then he's at his best. But whether he is or not is not going to make a difference with my side of the net, and that's kind of my mentality.''

Sampras, who leads 7-5 in their head-to-head record, will try to approach the contest in a similar frame of mind, and if form and fitness counterbalance, we could be in for a thriller. But we can do without another Yarra wave.

n The men's final will be broadcast live on BBC2 at 5.45am tomorrow with highlights at 5.40pm on Monday.