Andre Agassi's capacity to run through the gears and hold back the years, exemplified by his triumph at the Italian Open here yesterday, was summarised by his defeated opponent, Tommy Haas. "Andre beat the crap out of me when I was a young boy, and he beat the crap out me today," the 24-year-old German told 6,000 spectators at the Foro Italico.
Haas, who, as a 13-year-old, used to practise with Agassi at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, could only marvel at the 32-year-old's display. Agassi's returns worried Haas into putting too much into his serves and consequently double-faulting seven times at crucial moments. And the effectiveness of Agassi's kick serve prompted Haas to stand two yards behind the baseline when receiving serve. In between these two fundamentals of the game, Haas was outmanoeuvred by Agassi's speed of movement and eye for the winning shots.
Thirteen years after Agassi's five-set loss to Alberto Mancini, of Argentina in the Las Vegan's first final in Rome, in which he failed to convert a championship point in the fourth set and capitulated in the fifth, he redeemed himself. As in 1989, Agassi did not drop a set en route to the final. This time, he also won the final in straight sets, 6-3, 6-3, 6-0, after an hour and 56 minutes.
Acknowledging that his victory here is an important link in his list of accomplishments, he said: "[When something is missing], you don't really admit fully to yourself, because it's such a disappointment when you come so close. But you realise, as you size up all these tournaments outside the Grand Slams, that the Italian Open has so much history and is a staple of tennis. Hopefully, wherever Alberto Mancini is, he has a smile on his face for me."
Agassi, who completed his collection of the four Grand Slam titles by winning the French Open in 1999, said he never felt so good as he does now, two weeks ahead of the French championships in Paris. Moreover, the advertising campaign for international phone calls featuring Agassi and his wife, Steffi Graf, is nearer the mark than we may have imagined. Agassi has spent the week calling home.
"Today's was the first of my week's matches she got to watch on TV, and it was something she was looking forward to," he said. "Obviously, I've always struggled coming here, and for me to tell her I was playing well so quickly was one of those things that she really needed to see."
Mrs Agassi would be pleased with what she saw, although the spectators here, while largely supporting Agassi, would have hoped for a closer contest. Having broken for 3-2 in the opening set, Agassi had to save three break points to hold the next game. Haas's endeavours to recover were ruined when he double-faulted twice in the ninth game to lose the set.
The German's serve let him down again in the second set, a double-fault costing him the fourth game. Agassi, showing that he, too, is capable of glaring errors, hit a wild smash out and netted a forehand to lose serve for the only time, for 4-3. He then proceeded to win the concluding eight games of the match and 14 of the last 15 points.
In spite of yesterday's disappointment, Haas's impressive run to the final without losing a set will be rewarded today with a rise from No 7 to No 2 in the ATP tournament entry system. Agassi will be elevated from No 9 to No 3. Britain's Tim Henman drops one place, from fifth to sixth, and is now third in the Champions' Race, behind Sweden's Thomas Johansson and Agassi.
Agassi said the hard work he has been putting in with his coach of four months, Darren Cahill, has given him the confidence to win on clay.
"I've done great work with Darren," he said. "I think Darren has really come into a pretty tough situation and absolutely allowed me to be the best that I can be and is continually pushing me to get better."
Agassi teamed up with Cahill after parting with his long-time coach Brad Gilbert in February and following Cahill's split with the world No 1 Lleyton Hewitt. Agassi's win here was his third title under Cahill.
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