Showman finally adds substance

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The Independent Online
In July 1992 Andre Agassi, the nearly man of Grand Slam tennis, finally came of age when he won the game's most coveted tournament. John Roberts describes a superb Wimbledon final in which the American prevailed in five sets over Croatia's Goran Ivanisevic, in a classic contrast of styles

One man's triumph is often accompanied by another's cruel fortune. So it was yesterday, when Andre Agassi finally added substance to showmanship by lifting the Wimbledon men's singles trophy while Goran Ivanisevic was trying to work out how it is possible to hit 206 aces in the world's greatest tournament and be left with only numbing thoughts of two double-faults and a netted volley.

The concluding game of a magnificent final, which enabled the championships to maintain an air of splendour in defiance of the weather, encapsulated the thin margin between soaring victory and heart-rending defeat.

Agassi, the mega-rich, designer tramp, nearly man of Grand Slam tennis, was receiving serve from the biggest boomer in the sport in the 10th game of the fifth set. Ivanisevic had sent down 37 aces in the match, which now stands as a record for the Centre Court and is only five short of the 42 hit by Britain's John Feaver on Court Two when losing to John Newcombe in 1976.

Suddenly, after the heavier artillery had been leavened by interludes of delightful touch play, the entire event boiled down to the supremacy of the two elements of the power game - mighty serve versus emphatic return; puncher against counter-puncher.

Popular though the lanky Ivanisevic has become, in spite of displaying the odd flash of temper and developing the habit of reducing points to one shot, the majority of the 13,100 had only one winner in mind, and he was the one with the untidy flowing hair under the cap, the loose shirt, short enough to show his midriff, the cycling tights and the pigeon-toed walk along the baseline.

In the past, a gaudier version of the Las Vegan has strutted the cement courts of Flushing Meadow, New York, losing to his compatriot Pete Sampras in the final of the United States Open, and has scuffed the clay courts of Roland Garros, in Paris, falling to the aged Andres Gomez and the thrusting Jim Courier when it came to le crunch in consecutive French Opens.

Could he possibly make the breakthrough here, at the stately home of the sport, the very place he used to pass by with the disdainful swagger of youth?

Ivanisevic's second serve on the opening point fell back into his court off the net-cord: 0-15, prompting 'oooohs' from the spectators. He again missed with his lethal first delivery, and the second attempt was beeped out by 'Cyclops', the line machine: 0-30, 'oooo-aaaah'.

The Croat's next serve landed in the net, but he gained momentary respite from the next two, both service winners: 30-30. Agassi crouched on the baseline, hoping for another chance. It came when Ivanisevic missed another first serve. Agassi murdered the second, springing from his toes to flash a forehand return across the court: 30-40, match point.

Another first serve went adrift. Ivanisevic struck the second firmly enough to advance in anticipation of killing Agassi's backhand return with a backhand volley. With so much at stake, the ball and the net seemed to merge before his eyes, and he steered one into the other.

It was Agassi's day - 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 1-6, 6-4 - and he sank to his knees in the fashion of Bjorn Borg before falling flat on his face, in relief and remembrance, perhaps, of the recurring nightmare which would no longer haunt him.

Recounting the climax, Agassi said his reaction to Ivanisevic's double- faults was not "this is it'', but "this could be it''. As he said: "When you have been through what I have been through, you hesitate a little bit. I knew those double-faults could just as easy have been two aces, and I knew that it might just go to 30-30 with two more aces. I didn't hear the fat lady humming yet. And when I got to match point, I still wasn't hearing anything, because I knew he was maybe three serves away from holding serve.

"When his serve went into the net, my eyes lit up and I was really aware that it could all be done with one backhand return. When his volley went into the net I was just overwhelmed. All I was thinking was, 'It's over, It's over'.''

By the time he lifted his body from the grass, Ivanisevic had stepped over the net, and they hugged. "Any time you are in a match that goes to five sets, where both of you are doing everything you can just to stay in the match, there is a bond that develops out there that you cannot explain to anybody else except if you are an athlete and feel it out in the heat of battle,'' Agassi said.

In the same way, he embraced Wimbledon. "I am really kind of sad, because the sport has offered me and my life so much and this tournament has offered me and my life so much. It is a shame that I didn't respect it a little earlier.''

The 22-year-old Agassi is the first American to win the title since his friend John McEnroe in 1984, and the first from anywhere to accomplish the feat from the baseline since Jimmy Connors defeated McEnroe in 1982.

Agassi, who overwhelmed McEnroe in the semi-finals on Saturday, is the best returner of serve since Connors. Comparison will also be made with Borg, who drove his way from the back-court to win five consecutive championships.

While Agassi's Donnay rackets are the graphite grandchildren of Borg's wooden armoury, his style is more flashy and his personality more bouncy than the Swede, whose pinstripes were apposite to his fully focused, businesslike approach. The American does, however, share Borg's penchant for dismantling the big servers.

Though the aces rained again yesterday, the 20-year-old Ivanisevic was unable to break Agassi's serve until the second game of the fourth set. By then they had been through a tie-break, which the Croat edged, 10-8, and two sets which were dominated by Agassi from the moment he broke Ivanisevic in the opening game of the second set.

It was only the eighth time in the entire tournament that Ivanisevic's service game had been penetrated. It was to happen twice more, the second time terminally, with those self-inflicted wounds.

Ken Rosewall, popularly regarded as the best player never to win the title, was watching from the Royal Box. The great Australian would have felt for both players, though particularly for Ivanisevic, who at least has the youth to build successfully on the experience of his first Grand Slam final.

Though Agassi had a tick on his cap, it did not remind him to doff it to the Duchess of Kent when he was presented with the trophy and the winners' cheque for pounds 265,000. The odd lapse of protocol will be overlooked on this occasion.