Tennis: Wimbledon '99 - Agassi's quicksilver show

Wimbledon 99: Las Vegan lines up Fourth of July duel with fellow American
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The Independent Online
AT THE end, Andre Agassi blew kisses. He covered every section of Court One with them, just as he had hit every corner of Patrick Rafter's segment of the turf in trouncing him 7-5 7-6 6-2 to set up a Fourth of July all-American men's final at Wimbledon for the first time since 1993, when Pete Sampras defeated Jim Courier.

Agassi's victory, accomplished in three minutes over two hours, was as complete as it was professional, lifting him back to number one in the world rankings. The man is in rare form with 13 straight wins now and the prospect of becoming the first man to win the French Open and Wimbledon back-to-back since Bjorn Borg in 1980.

How incredible it is to think that, a mere 19 months ago he was labouring at 142 in the rankings and reduced to competing in challenger tournaments. "I don't advise that to anybody, it's a long way back," Agassi said. "But I am far from satisfied.

"I have come here to win, not to accomplish a little something. There is still a lot of work for me to do. Who would have believed all this a month ago. I certainly wouldn't have. I find myself feeding off the momentum and also playing exceedingly well."

He can say that again. In the clash of ponytail versus close-cropped skull, it was the no-haired one who triumphed conclusively. In fact, Agassi played out of his shaven head.

He was not broken on serve all match; he blunted, then destroyed Rafter's announced tactic of charging the net like a bull in hot pursuit of the cape, and by the third set the 26-year-old from Mount Isa looked a bit like one of those tormented animals in the later stages of a corrida.

There was not the slightest surprise at the way the match unfolded, simply in the conclusive manner in which it was won. Rafter's tactics of attempting to cover the net in the face of one of the game's best returners was always going to be a risky one. He clearly hoped to intimidate Agassi, but the Las Vegan was not for scaring.

"I had to execute my shots, make sure I had a good percentage of first serves and also make sure I was picking up his serve well," said Agassi. "I did all those things and I was just very pleased with the way I played today, about as good as I can play in as big a match as you can have."

There were fleeting opportunities for Rafter to impose himself on the match, and the majority in the crowd seemed to be willing him to do just that. At 5-4 in the first set, he had a brace of set points on Agassi's serve but they got away from him. So severe was the disappointment that the Australian immediately dropped serve, leaving Agassi to serve out for a one-set lead in 40 minutes.

The second set saw Rafter at full stretch not only on the attack but in his attempt to keep Agassi from breaking through again. He saved break points in the first and fifth games, another seven at 4-4, and took the set to a tiebreak, but his luck ran out there.

Rafter saved one set point, forcing Agassi to hit wide as he charged in, but on the next set point the American's backhand service return whistled past Rafter as he attempted to close in on the net. Agassi raised a fist briefly in the direction of his coach, Brad Gilbert, before setting out on the final stage of the journey.

This was made easy for him early in the final set when three lamentable backhand volleys by Rafter, one of them long, one wide and one going into the net, gave Agassi the early break he was seeking. From then on it was simply a matter of consolidation, cementing his gains and navigating his way through to a Wimbledon final again after a gap of seven years. At the very end Rafter went out with a spot of thunder, putting a fierce smash wide. He then offered Agassi a handshake and a matey pat on the back before hurling most of the contents of his bag into the crowd. "It was a matter of being outplayed today," he said.

"Andre was just too good and too strong in everything he did. That was the best I have ever seen him serve. He was also very strong from the baseline, never gave me a chance and controlled the points. He never let me in at all."

Agassi said that since the French Open he had been feeding off the momentum he generated in Paris. "I have also been playing exceedingly well," he grinned. "It has been a lot of hard work that has taken a long time to pay off."

In the opinion of John McEnroe, Agassi's return to world number one has been "an absolute miracle, incredible, unbelievable. It's great for tennis and is inspirational for a lot of people, not just those of my age."

Today's final, said Agassi, "is a highly anticipated match by many, including myself, because I haven't played Pete in a long time." Their last encounter was at the Canadian Open last year, Agassi winning 6-7 6-1 6-2. "It will be a storybook occasion," he continued. "For me to win would be quite an accomplishment, but I don't think I could ever feel the pressure and intensity I felt going into the French Open final, winning something I could have won 10 years prior."

Instead, Agassi will be bidding for something he did win seven years ago. "Tomorrow is a great day for many reasons, but it all starts with the tennis inside the lines. I need to stop thinking about history and start thinking about the serve and forehand the other guy has."

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