Tennis: Agassi and Paris - an affair of the heart

Ronald Atkin suggests today's men's final will be a passionate one
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ANDRE AGASSI gave himself a third shot at the French Open, the only Grand Slam he has never been able to display in his trophy cabinet, when he polished off Dominik Hrbaty of Slovakia in their rain-delayed semi-final yesterday.

Agassi needed only 22 minutes at lunchtime to complete an impressive job of work, a 6-4 7-6 3-6 6-4 victory which had been suspended because of heavy rain on Friday evening with Hrbaty 2-1 ahead in the fourth set.

This afternoon's final, against the Ukrainian Andrei Medvedev, will not only see two men with almost the same first name squaring off but will be the first all-baldy culmination to a Grand Slam. There is not much in the way of a form guide for the final, since the two have only met once before, six years ago, when Medvedev won 7-6 3-6 6-4 in the hard- court tournament at New Haven, Connecticut.

However, Agassi, 29, will start the favourite since he is the 13th seed at Roland Garros, while the 24-year-old Medvedev, who arrived in Paris with only one win in three clay court events, stands at exactly 100 in the rankings. This makes him the lowest-rated finalist here since the Open era got under way in 1968.

The Agassi win was great news for the tournament, and not least the ticket touts who loiter beneath the horse chestnut trees outside the stadium flourishing pieces of cardboard with crudely scrawled notices "Je cherche places". If the final had been Hrbaty-Medvedev there would have been places galore to spare this afternoon.

Having been saved by the weather when he seemed to be flagging a little in the face of Hrbaty's acute sense of angles, Agassi was looking for a quick kill when play resumed in bright sunshine in front of a half-empty stadium.

Perhaps the noon start was a little early for the Las Vegan but he took a while to hit his stride, needing to save two break points in his first service game and then another one at 2-3.

Once these little stumbles had been survived, Agassi's confidence swelled visibly, he injected venom into his shots and Hrbaty, ranked 30 in the world, began to look a forlorn figure. Even his choice of clothing, a Manchester United combination of red shirt and black shorts, could not keep his winning streak alive.

Agassi conjured two break points at 3-3 with a glorious backhand winner and though Hrbaty saved both of those he went break-point down again with a netted forehand before lofting a backhand inches over the baseline. Now Agassi needed to hold serve twice more to reach his third Roland Garros final. An ace, his fifth of the match, put him 5-3 ahead and there was no faltering when he served for the match. He arrived at match point with a service winner which spun off the frame of the Slovak's racket and needed no further invitation, forcing Hrbaty to net a full-stretch backhand before doing his Little Lord Fauntleroy act, bowing and blowing kisses to all corners of the stadium.

This will be Agassi's eighth Grand Slam final, of which he has won three - 1992 Wimbledon, 1994 US Open and 1995 Australian Open. The two Roland Garros failures came in successive years, 1990 and 1991, when he was beaten by Andres Gomez of Ecuador and then his compatriot Jim Courier. Victory today would make him only the fifth man in tennis history to win all four Grand Slams. Don Budge and Rod Laver (twice) captured them in one calendar year, while Fred Perry and Roy Emerson won all four, but not in the same year.

"You don't want to let opportunities go by," he said after yesterday's win, "and this is another great opportunity. There is a lot of pressure and a lot of nerves involved but that will all disappear when the competition gets under way and you have an agenda to focus on. My experience of Grand Slam finals will help me but it will be hard work."

Medvedev, whose baggy grey plaid shorts make him look like a Florida tourist, has been borne aloft for the past fortnight on a mixture of pure love and sheer genius. Having made public his re-ignited affection for the German tennis player Anke Huber - who faithfully cheered him on in every match - the gregarious Medvedev put out Pete Sampras in the second round and then shattered the ambitions of Brazil by knocking out Gustavo Kuerten and Fernando Meligeni in the quarter and semi-finals.

After the win over Meligeni on Friday Medvedev indulged in what some may feel was dangerous thinking by saying that getting to his first Grand Slam final had surpassed his expectations by a mile. "So I cannot lose basically," he added. "Even if I lost the final I would still be the happiest man on earth.

"I feel much less pressure than before the semi-finals. Getting to the final, being given the chance to fight for what in my mind is the best trophy in tennis, is an honour. So being given the chance to be there, you are already a winner. And if you win, that's a bonus."

Another bonus is that Medvedev is a man in love, while poor Agassi is someone recently separated from his wife. "Andrei is a good guy and I am happy to hear his good news," Agassi said.

"But I am more respectful of the shots he can hit. I would prefer it if he would let his girlfriend play for him instead, with all due respect to her game."