Tennis: Agassi revels in his Grand Slam renaissance

t TENNIS Two years of toil and dedication transform Las Vegas' favourite son from a fading force to a champion fired with new will to succeed

OLD FAVOURITES were on the rise again yesterday. The New York Times went up to 75 cents, and Andre Agassi reached the pinnacle of the tennis world without a trace of inflation to his body or his ego.

Such was the injury toll at the United States Open that the concluding Grand Slam men's singles championship of the century was won by the last man standing. A few years ago, Agassi might have been discounted after a few cocky struts and flashy shots. On this occasion, lean and eager, he looked almost as fresh at the end of the fortnight as he did at the beginning.

There was a similar pattern to Agassi's advance through the French Open in June, when he came back from two-sets-to-love down to overcome the Ukrainian Andrei Medvedev in the final, a feat that made Agassi only the fifth man in history to win all four Grand Slam singles titles.

It was not a lack of fitness that denied Agassi a second Wimbledon championship in July, but an irresistible performance in the final by Pete Sampras, the master of the lawns.

Agassi knew on the eve of the US Open that Sampras would not be able to keep an appointment with him in the final after injuring his back. Pat Rafter, champion for the previous two years, also retired from the top half of the draw because of a damaged shoulder.

The survivor proved to be Todd Martin, that thoroughly decent fellow from Michigan, who willed his 6ft 6in frame to make his challenge one to remember. Pitting his serve-volley style against Agassi's renowned returns and groundstrokes in a stirring contest between two men who have little in common except nationality and age (29), Martin did everything except break serve. Agassi prevailed, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 6-3, 6-2, after three hours and 23 minutes.

Approaching the climax of the tournament, Agassi said he "felt like a spring chicken". To make sure Martin received the message, Agassi bounded about the court like a bantam and sprinted to and from his chair as if rest periods were a nuisance. "Gamesmanship is a tough word," he said. "If you feel strong in a five-set match, it's important to allow your opponent to know that you feel that way. You can't bluff that, so either you're going to run hard on the points or you're not. I had the energy, so it wasn't a problem for me."

The problem for Agassi was Martin's inspired form and admirable spirit. "I was hanging on by a thread for most of the match," Agassi said.

Martin knows the feeling. That is how it had been for him in several of his matches en route to Sunday's showdown, notably when he capitalised on Greg Rusedski's inability to finish him off after the British No 2 had led by two sets to love in the fourth round.

The crux of the final was Martin's inability to convert either of two break points at 4-4 in the fourth set. Agassi went on to level the match after two hours and 55 minutes, his game taking flight thereafter. "I can't underestimate what Andre's tennis did to my legs," Martin said.

Few opponents had reason to marvel at Agassi's game a couple of years ago, when his ranking plunged to No 141 in the world. Asked how he would have responded then to anybody who suggested he would become the player of the year in 1999, he said: "I'd have told them to stop smoking a crack pipe."

The game does not slow down for stragglers, and the way back was hard. "He was 27 years old, people were writing him off, and it was self-inflicted," Brad Gilbert, Agassi's coach, recounted. "He lost his drive a little bit."

Close to a point where passers by would ask, "Didn't you used to be Andre Agassi?" He decided to act before it was too late. The Las Vegas showman was prepared to scrap for points in Challengers, the lower division ATP Tour events, and perspire with renewed purpose in response to the strict regimen of his trainer, Gil Reyes. "He worked his arse off with Gil," Gilbert said.

Not for the first time, Agassi ceased to be an under-achiever. "I had to make a choice if I was going to really play the game, or quit," Agassi said. "If I was going to play, I had to do a lot of work. I don't know if you ever make up for missed opportunities. The best you can do is not live and regret from here on in. It is nice to get another shot at it."

Gilbert believes the momentum will continue. "I feel like now there's a two or three-year window for Andre and Pete [Sampras], and a few of the other older guys," he said. Gilbert's view is based on two considerations: the realisation by Agassi and Sampras that they need to make the most of the remaining years, and the fact that younger rivals are not threatening them as much as they should.

"There are a few young guys who are good players who have not stepped up," Gilbert said. "There are three guys I thought were going to step up and have it, but they haven't. So now I think a younger group will be the new wave. In a couple of years I think there are a couple of 17- year-olds who will step up."

Agassi, meantime, savoured the acclaim of the New York crowds. "You know, they've watched me grow up," he said. "It's hard not to care on some level when you watch somebody develop from a teenager who says and does a lot of the wrong things to a person who gets out there and appreciates the opportunities.

"Somebody showed me a picture recently of when I was 16 years old and asked me: `Who is this person?' I looked at it and said: `Wow, she's cute. She has a nice figure, very narrow hips, nice legs, long, good hair'. All of a sudden I went: `Wow, that was me'. I've changed a lot. I don't quite have the hair anymore."

Luke Milligan fell at the first hurdle in the Samsung Open on Bournemouth's clay courts yesterday. The taxi driver's son who reached the third round on his Wimbledon debut three years ago was beaten 6-1, 6-2 in the first round by Mariano Hood, an Argentinian who has just broken into the world's top 200. Milligan, 23, ranked 350, was rarely in the match against the left-hander Hood. The British No 3 Jamie Delgado, who has just broken into the top 200, plays Spain's Jacobo Diaz and Scotland's Miles Maclagan, who took Boris Becker to five sets at Wimbledon this year, and the only other Briton still in the draw, faces the sixth-seeded Frenchman Arnaud Di Pasquale today. Delgado and Maclagan are included in next week's Davis Cup squad.

MATCH STATS

Martin Agassi

Age 29 29

Seeding 7 2

First serve percentage 60% 64%

Aces 23 7

Double faults 8 4

Winners (inc service) 77 45

Unforced errors 60 23

Break-point conversions 0/8 5/10

Net approaches won 62/97 16/19

Total points won 147 165

Time of match: 3hr 23min

STORY OF A GRAND SLAM SEASON

MEN

LEADING RANKINGS

1 (2) A Agassi (US) 4,470pts

2 (3) Y Kafelnikov (Rus) 3,917

3 (1) P Sampras (US) 3,544

4 (7) T Martin (US) 2,969

5 (6) G Kuerten (Bra) 2,707

6 (5) T Henman (GB) 2,561

7 (8) G Rusedski (GB) 2,336

8 (10) M Rios (Chile) 2,276

9 (13) R Krajicek (Neth) 2,243

10 (14) T Haas (Ger) 2,097

11 (12) A Corretja (Sp) 2,030

12 (4) P Rafter (Aus) 1,939

13 (15) N Kiefer (Ger) 1,931

14 (16) N Lapentti (Ecu) 1,866

15 (9) C Moya (Sp) 1,856

16 (26) C Pioline (Fr) 1,851

17 (19) T Enqvist (Swe) 1,710

18 (20) F Mantilla (Sp) 1,704

19 (23) V Spadea (US) 1,502

20 (18) K Kucera (Slovak) 1,496

Previous positions in brackets

LEADING PRIZE-MONEY WINNERS

1 Agassi $2,251,128

2 Kafelnikov 1,480,218

3 Sampras 1,401,256

4 Kuerten 1,389,309

5 Rafter 1,254,574

6 Rios 917,447

7 Martin 901,124

8 Henman 886,694

9 Krajicek 875,397

10 M Philippoussis (Aus) 840,839

11 Moya 760,687

12 Kiefer 718,518

13 J Bjorkman (Swe) 714,735

14 Haas 690,318

15 N Lapentti 686,078

16 Enqvist 646,856

17 T Johansson (Swe) 645,037

18 Pioline (Fr) 622,018

19 L Paes (Ind) 603,065

20 Mantilla 601,207

GRAND SLAM CUP RANKINGS

1 Agassi 1,725pts

2 Kafelnikov 960

3 Martin 750

4 Sampras 750

5 A Medvedev (Ukr) 565

6 Enqvist 512

7 Kuerten 470

8 Haas 455

9 Pioline 454

10 Henman 382

11 Rafter 382

12 Lapentti 360

13 F Meligeni (Br) 322

14 D Hrbaty (Slovak) 306

15 Spadea 267

16 Krajicek 250

(Top 12 proceed to Grand Slam Cup)

WOMEN

LEADING RANKINGS

1 (1) M Hingis (Swit) 5,620pts

2 (2) L Davenport (US) 4,697

3 (3) V Williams (US) 3,991

4 (6) S Williams (US) 3,144

5 (4) M Seles (US) 2,976

6 (5) M Pierce (Fr) 2,628

7 (12) B Schett (Aut) 1,905

8 (11) J Halard-Decugis (Fr) 1,905

9 (7) A Coetzer (SA) 1,905

10 (9) N Tauziat (Fr) 1,796

11 (8) A Sanchez-Vicario (Sp) 1,786

12 (13) S Testud (Fr) 1,721

13 (15) D Van Roost (Bel) 1,718

14 (16) A Mauresmo (Fr) 1,699

15 (14) A Kournikova (Rus) 1,619

16 (17) C Martinez (Sp) 1,541

17 (19) E Likhovtseva (Rus) 1,449

18 (10) J Novotna (Cz Rep) 1,420

19 (20) I Spirlea (Rom) 1,319

20 (27) A Huber (Ger) 1,293

Previous positions in brackets

LEADING PRIZE-MONEY WINNERS

1 Hingis $2,204,180

2 S Williams 1,664,171

3 Davenport 1,578,263

4 V Williams 1,428,082

5 Graf 1,193,367

6 Seles 686,680

7 Novotna 604,854

8 Kournikova 548,624

9 Pierce 548,092

10 Sanchez-Vicario 496,221

11 Schett 430385

12 Likhovtseva 411,707

13 Mauresmo 391,676

14 N Zvereva (Bela) 375,452

15 Halard-Decugis 374,545

16 Coetzer 369,970

17 Martinez 353,542

18 Tauziat 350,582

19 C Morariu (US) 348,930

20 Testud 328,746

GRAND SLAM CUP RANKINGS

1 Hingis 1502

2 Davenport 1350

3 Graf 1200

4 Seles 790

5 S Williams 680

6 V Williams 675

7 Mauresmo 545

8 Sanchez-Vicario 415

9 Pierce 395

10 Schett 340

11 M Lucic (Croa) 324

12 Martinez 305

(Top eight proceed to Grand Slam Cup)

1999 GRAND SLAM FINALS

Australian: Hingis bt Mauresmo 6-2 6-3; Kafelnikov bt Enqvist 4-6 6-0 6-3 7-6. French: Graf bt Hingis 4-6 7-5 6-2; Agassi bt Medvedev 1-6 2- 6 6-4 6-3 6-4. Wimbledon: Davenport bt Graf 6-4 7-5; Sampras bt Agassi 6-3 6-4 7-5. US: S Williams bt Hingis 6-3 7-6; Agassi bt 6-4 6-7 6-7 6- 3 6-2.

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