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Andre in Giant Company Now

French Open: Emotional Agassi rallies after losing first two sets to take singles championship and become only the fifth man to win all four Grand Slam events.

June 07, 1999|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — The final step of Andre Agassi's rush week--for admittance into the hallowed tennis fraternity of Laver, Emerson, Perry and Budge--was almost like a cruel hazing ritual.

Agassi, essentially, was forced to relive his recent career in the French Open final against Andrei Medvedev of Ukraine on Sunday. For two sets, he looked like the guy who had plummeted to 140th in the world two years ago.

Then, the skies cleared, the sun came out, and Agassi got to be himself, the one who has been something of a clay-court guru. The new Agassi subdued the old Agassi, and he beat Medvedev in an inspiring final, 1-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4, in 2 hours 52 minutes.

Agassi's first French Open title put him in the rarefied company of Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Fred Perry and Don Budge as the only players to win a career Grand Slam. Agassi won Wimbledon in 1992, the U.S. Open in 1994 and the Australian Open in 1995. Laver was the last one to accomplish the feat 30 years ago, as he won all four in the same calendar year.

Fittingly, Laver was the one who presented Agassi with the winner's trophy. An emotional Agassi paid homage to Laver, bowing to him. By then, Agassi had wiped away his tears of joy. After Medvedev's final forehand went flying long, Agassi put his arms in the air, acknowledging his supporters in the friends' box. Then he put his hands over his eyes and cried.

Medvedev, in a classy move, came over to Agassi's side of the net and hugged him, reminiscent of runner-up Alex Corretja hugging Carlos Moya last year. Medvedev and Agassi shared a few words, and later hugged during the awards ceremony, a genuine feeling of esprit de corps.

"It's been a lot of years since I had this opportunity," Agassi said. "I never dreamed I would see this day."

Said his coach, Brad Gilbert: "He put a lot of ghosts to rest. A lot of people say Andre can't win a big match, can't win from two sets to none down, can't win a five-set match, can't win on clay. There were a lot of demons put to rest."

And all on the same day.

Agassi, the 13th-seeded player, won his first French title after losing twice in the final, in 1990 and 1991. He is 16-16 in five-set matches, having won two of them here. And this is the third time Agassi has rallied from a two-sets-to-none deficit, the other times being at the Australian Open in 1996 against Jim Courier and in a 1997 Davis Cup match against Jan Siemerink of the Netherlands.

"This is certainly the greatest feeling that I've ever had on the tennis court," Agassi said. "I don't even think it's sunk in yet. That's what makes it even more amazing."

Said Medvedev: "He has a right to say now that he's a greater player than say, Pete [Sampras], by winning all four Grand Slams. It's an argument that he can [make]. He has a right to have it."

Medvedev sat slumped in his courtside chair, trying to comprehend how it all slipped away. He played impeccable tennis the first two sets, winning the first one in 19 minutes and keeping it up after a brief 20-minute rain delay. He also won 100% of the points when he got his first serve in during the first two sets.

The turning point came in the third set in the ninth game. Medvedev had a break point to go ahead 5-4, which would have enabled him to serve for the title. Agassi staved it off with a volley, and he was able to start connecting with his backhand down the line and Medvedev hit a lull.

"From the depths of nowhere, he's got nothing on Houdini sometimes," Gilbert said. "Sometimes you expect the most from him and he gives you the least. Sometimes when you think there's no way he could show you this again, he can reach back and grab some magic like nobody."

Agassi admitted he was trying to prevent total humiliation.

"To be quite honest, I was in shock," he said of winning only three games the first two sets.

"I was embarrassed actually. Real disappointed with the fact the finals was potentially a blowout. At that point, I was just trying to stay alive and hope something good could happen."

He started having flashbacks of the losses to Andres Gomez and Courier in the other two finals here.

"I was nervous," Agassi said. "I was trying to control the point, and I felt like I wasn't hitting the ball. I was trying to move and my legs weren't going. It was a very, very scary feeling out there, and I fought through it. . . . I'm a proven war dog. I've been through it out here a lot of times. I can eat when I'm not hungry and I can sleep when I'm not tired. But you can't always control your nerves when you get out on the court."

Medvedev's serve kept him alive in the final two sets, especially the fourth, in which he had nine aces. He had 23 aces and eight double faults.

By the time Medvedev came into the interview room, he regained his equanimity. At No. 100, he was the lowest-ranked French finalist in the Open era.

"If you think that I am not smiling too much, that's only because I lost the final," Medvedev said. "I feel that I had a legitimate chance to win. But inside, I'm smiling. I'm happy.

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