Tennis: Agassi's return brings extra dimension: Las Vegan loses but wins over crowd. John Roberts reports from Key Biscayne on the rehabilitation of the game's main attraction

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The Independent Online
THE BETTER player won, of that there could be little doubt, but the loser was accorded a standing ovation which lasted for three minutes. The loser was Andre Agassi.

In truth, it was not a difficult situation to milk. The capacity crowd of 14,000 for Sunday's final of the Lipton Championships had been informed that Agassi had agreed to give Pete Sampras an extra hour to recover from sickness and dehydration in order to defend his title.

While there may be one or two players who would have claimed the winners' purse of dollars 242,000 ( pounds 140,000) on the spot rather than risk leaving with a second prize of dollars 128,000, Agassi's action seemed little more than one would expect; common decency. Still, Sampras, a 5-7, 6-3, 6-3 victor, described the gesture as 'a class move', and the spectators were happy to concur with the world No 1.

Every move Agassi makes is classy in the view of the majority of tennis followers. His encouraging progress since his return following wrist surgery is the best news the sport could wish for, with the exception of a successful comeback by Monica Seles.

There were times, even during an event as blessed with talent, interesting matches, and fine weather as the one here last week, when the only buzz came from a television blimp circling the stadium. But the atmosphere was charged the moment Agassi stepped on court, and he proved to have the fitness and desire to please the crowd and impress opponents with his play as well as his personality.

Approaching the final, Sampras expressed amazement that Agassi was 'beating the players he's beating pretty handily'. He added: 'We all know that when he gets his game together he is one of the best players in the world.'

Not even the affects of a dodgy pasta with tomato sauce, which he consumed on Saturday evening, diminished Sampras' serving capacity in the final, though he was grateful to Agassi for granting him time beforehand on an intravenous drip.

'That's the type of person Andre is,' Sampras said. 'We wanted to go out and give it our best shot for the fans, and for the game itself. I can't speak for everyone, but I would have done the same thing for Andre.'

Agassi appeared to find himself at a psychological disadvantage. 'My intensity wasn't quite the same,' he said. 'It is strange when you go out there an hour after your time to play and the guy is feeling sick. You are not really sharp. Then, at 5-2, I realised, whether he is sick or not, I was getting an ass- kickin' out there. He played great tennis, you have to give him that.'

Sampras became only the second player to beat Agassi in the 13 matches since his comeback, the other being Fabrice Santoro, a scurrying French baseliner. 'I think it has been an incredible tournament for me,' Agassi said, 'because I was not expecting this.'

Agassi came into the tournament ranked No 31. After his fourth- round win against the Frenchman, Cedric Pioline, he said: 'I know one thing for sure: I'll play the No 30 player in the world right now for a lot of money if he wanted to.'

It was not realised at the time that the No 30, Brad Gilbert, had been enlisted as Agassi's coach for the week. The Californian, who has made a fortune from a moderate talent, tells how in a fascinating book, Winning Ugly, which encourages others to follow his example.

Agassi is impressed. 'I haven't read Brad's book yet, but it is quite incredible the things he has been helping me with, mostly to do with strategy and the mental aspects, and I would look for the relationship to continue. If we happen to play each other, it's going to be no different than playing anyone else. We'll play our best tennis, and whoever wins, wins. But that is not going to interfere with our goals on the other side, which is to help me get to be the best that I can be.'

The partnership worked perfectly against Boris Becker, not to mention his coach, Nick Bollettieri, Agassi's former mentor. 'He has beaten me now seven times in a row, and he played as good as ever,' Becker said after losing in the third round. 'I guess if he hears the name Becker it just makes him play much better. I was hitting 115mph serves, and he just put them back like nothing.'

Stefan Edberg was another to fall, though the Swede squandered opportunities to test Agassi more thoroughly in the quarter-finals. 'He seems to be back on track,' Edberg said. 'He looks fitter and is probably a little faster than he was. He likes these conditions, a slow hardcourt, light balls, and a little bit of wind. Time will tell in the next couple of months, but I'm sure he will do well.'

Agassi is determined to build on what he has achieved so far. 'I want this to happen consistently,' he said. 'What I am hoping for is to go out and beat the guys who I am supposed to beat, then have my occasional upset over the guys who are playing the best tennis.'

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