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Again, It's Agassi in a Slam Dunk

Tennis: He sweeps Gambill for his fourth title at Miami and improves to 22-2 in matches this year.

April 02, 2001|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — Andre Agassi is like Samson only in reverse. The more hair he has lost, the better and stronger his game, elevating him to four Grand Slam titles in the last two years.

Follicles lost. Charisma gained.

"I feel old when I see mousse in my opponent's hair," Agassi said, smiling. "And I start realizing that while I have a lot of options inside the lines of tennis, outside the lines, I am starting to run out of a few."

The mousse man would be Jan-Michael Gambill, who was Agassi's opponent in the final of the Ericsson Open on Sunday. While Gambill has impeccably highlighted hair and youth, Agassi countered with a devastating blend of power and guile, testing and pushing the 23-year-old and finally breaking his spirit.

After a taut first set, Agassi won the final nine games, beating Gambill, 7-6 (4), 6-1, 6-0, in 1 hour 51 minutes. It was his record fourth title at this tournament and 11th consecutive victory in 2001.

The dismantling of quality players is almost routine for Agassi. Two weeks ago, Pete Sampras kept it close for two sets and faded in the third in the final at Indian Wells. Here, Patrick Rafter grabbed the middle set against Agassi in the semifinals but couldn't sustain a serious challenge in the first or third.

Considering Sampras and Rafter are Grand Slam champions, Gambill didn't stand much of a chance Sunday. He too faded away, that is, except for his unconventional black socks.

"I don't think anybody in the world could have beaten him they way he was playing," Gambill said.

Agassi's rare abilities even had Gambill confounded during rallies.

"He fielded some balls that I just can't even fathom how he does it," Gambill said. "I will hit a ball 100 miles an hour, it hits the baseline and somehow he fields it back and I am running for the next one. I am looking, 'How does he do that?' I am actually thinking that during one rally.

"I'm running for this ball, I'm thinking, '[Damn] it.' "

The story of Agassi's much-chronicled reinvention becomes more vivid when you consider what a vulnerable figure he was here in 1998. Agassi's comeback was derailed, briefly, when he lost to Marcelo Rios in the Miami final.

Earlier that year, Gambill beat Agassi for the first time, at Indian Wells, and talk of Agassi was starting to drift to the past tense. On Sunday, Agassi revealed how difficult it has been, at times, to think about and deal with the lost years.

"I have taken off some years that I have spent a lot of nights regretting," he said. "But I am still out here doing it and that, to me, is making up for some of that.

"I have learned on several levels what makes me tick, and regrets or no regrets, I still had more tennis in me. When I put my mind to something, I am pretty stubborn about it."

Now, suddenly a Slam?

Agassi won the first Grand Slam event of the year, the Australian Open, and his lofty standard of 2001--22-2--found him fielding several questions about winning the four Slams in the same year. He would need to win 21 more matches, seven each at the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

"I wish I could snap my fingers and make it happen," Agassi said. "Twenty-one in a row is a tough road against the best players in the world. But I'll take the next seven."

The next Slam is on red clay at the French Open, starting May 28.

"I have certainly played well on the hard courts, but there are too many great players out there, who specialize in surfaces," he said. "Others are going to have a few things to prove too."

Between now and then is his 31st birthday, April 29. With his girlfriend Steffi Graf watching from the stands, Agassi looked like an excited kid at winning this title, showing genuine glee.

"I believe I can do this for a few more years," he said. "I've never been 31 before. But it's my belief you can be physically at your best into your 30s."

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