Tennis: Agassi has a French monopoly

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The Independent Online
ANDRE AGASSI loves Paris in the springtime. Andre Agassi loves Paris in the fall. When Agassi is winning prizes, he loves Paris best of all.

It was here on the clay courts of Stade Roland Garros at the French Open in June that the bald charmer from Las Vegas finally proved himself a tennis champion for all seasons by joining Rod Laver, Fred Perry, Don Budge and Roy Emerson as only the fifth man to win each of the four Grand Slam singles titles.

Yesterday, indoors on a synthetic court at the Palais Omnisport de Paris- Bercy, Agassi defeated the Russian teenager Marat Safin 7-6, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 to become the first man to win a French Open and Paris Open double in the same year. And what a year it has been, with triumphs on clay, on concrete at the United States Open in September, on carpet here, and only defied by an inspired Pete Sampras in the final on the Wimbledon grass in July.

Now, already confirmed as the year-end world No 1, Agassi intends to return to America for a week's rest before preparing for the ATP Tour Championship in Hanover on 23 November.

The eight qualifiers are: Agassi (United States), Yevgeny Kafelnikov (Russia), Gustavo Kuerten (Brazil), Pete Sampras (United States), Nicolas Kiefer (Germany), Todd Martin (United States), Thomas Enqvist (Sweden) and Nicolas Lapentti (Ecuador).

Britain's Tim Henman, who competes in Stockholm this week, remains in contention with the Dutchman Richard Krajicek, Germany's Tommy Haas and the Frenchman Cedric Pioline to become first reserve.

Of the many heartfelt comments Agassi made in his post-match address yesterday, two were particularly apt. He promised the 15,000 spectators that he would try to thank them in French when he returns next year, and he told his talented opponent: "It's all going to get better."

Agassi, who felt the power of Safin's game when he was eliminated in the first round of the French Open in five sets in 1998, acknowledges that the 19-year-old Muscovite, whose groundstrokes have been refined in Spain, is among the brightest newcomers, in company with the Australian Lleyton Hewitt and Nicolas Lapentti, of Ecuador, whom Agassi defeated in three sets in Saturday's semi-finals.

What Agassi said in reference to Safin - "He made me earn it today from start to finish" - applied equally to Lapentti. But the 29-year-old Agassi was in good shape, physically and mentally, to deny the youthful challengers.

When Safin connects cleanly with ball there is not a lot an opponent can do except move, parry and hope. As yet, Safin has not matured as a player to the point where he is making the connections consistently enough to win the major championships, but that time may be not far away.

Agassi exchanged service breaks in the opening set, but when it came to the tie-break his concentration was such that he only had to hit the ball four times - three serves, one return - in advancing from 2-0 to 7-1.

Safin salvaged the third set, which enabled the crowd to enjoy the bonus of a keenly contested finale. Agassi made light of a blistered right foot, Safin occasionally blistered his racket - and received a warning for throwing it - as the pair duelled for supremacy. Agassi made the decisive break for 4-3 after Safin double-faulted, and he saved a break point to hold, winning the most exciting point of the match.

Steffi Graf, who endured an ear-bashing from Brad Gilbert, Agassi's coach, while watching her friend play, seems to have had a positive affect on Agassi's spirit of well-being. "I'm always fascinated to pick the brain of a champion," Agassi said. "She certainly has the ability to ask a lot of herself, and I've enjoyed getting to know her focus and her intensities. I'm always trying to learn, and she's an easy person to learn from in that department."

Results, Digest, page 9