In major accomplishment, Agassi caps career `Slam'

Down 2 sets, he rallies to defeat Medvedev in grand French finale

June 07, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

PARIS -- No longer young in terms of professional tennis players, Andre Agassi, 29, completed a major career comeback yesterday and joined a short list of pro tennis immortals.

With an incredible rally from two-sets-to-love down, Agassi willed his way back to a 1-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 victory over tenacious Andrei Medvedev at the French Open to become only the fifth man to win all four Grand Slam tournaments.

And then the "kid" from Las Vegas cried.

"I may never have words to explain how this feels," said Agassi, his brown eyes never leaving the silver trophy sitting in front of him during the post-match interview.

"It's difficult when reputations get pinned on you. You can try really hard and things still don't go your way. You can lose, no matter how hard you're working, no matter what you're doing. I lost my first three Grand Slam finals. Nerves and pressures were a part of it, but I also lost to three guys with nothing to lose."

But from those early moments Agassi was criticized for lack of character. People said he lacked concentration, that he couldn't win the big ones, that he'd give up when the going got tough, and that he was more style than substance.

Imagine is everything, he said in an old commercial, and for a long time it was. In fact, Agassi has won only twice in five-setters after being down two sets, and his overall five-set record is now 16-16.

But through the years, he has reinvented himself numerous times. He has disappeared from the top 10 and the top 20 and come back to be No. 1.

Two years ago, he disappeared almost entirely, dropping to No. 141, and has now come back to win his fourth Grand Slam title and complete his trophy case.

His coach, Brad Gilbert, said Agassi has more tricks than Houdini.

Still, the fact that it was No. 13 seed

Agassi -- and not Pete Sampras -- going out on the court to complete his set of major tournament titles was difficult for many, and even Agassi, to fathom.

And when he was down 1-6, 2-6 and facing break point in the third set, just 75 minutes into the match with Medvedev, a man who was playing as if he was the engine on the French Bullet train, it was even harder to believe history would be made.

Almost no one would have made a Las Vegas bet that it would be Agassi standing on the podium two hours later, tears falling as he gently accepted the winner's trophy from Rod Laver, the last of the previous four men to win every Grand Slam, capturing all four in 1962 and '69.

"I had flashbacks, for sure," said Agassi, who lost this final to Andres Gomez in 1990 and to Jim Courier in 1991. "There were a lot of flashbacks last night and this morning and in the first hour and 15 minutes of the match.

"You know, it's one of the hardest feelings in the world to come so close to your dreams. I just wanted to keep perspective, to go out there and just work as hard as I could, and I just wanted to leave it on the court. If I would have lost -- although I could have lived with it -- losing would have been devastating to me."

It was a cold, blustery, rainy day when this match started, and Agassi was as cold as a winter's snow. His serve was tight, his backhand wide and his forehand so long there was no need to worry about line calls.

And across the net, Medvedev, who said he was satisfied with just getting to this final, played as if he planned to win the whole thing and catch the 6: 15 flight home to Kiev, Ukraine.

"The first two sets, I felt that he wasn't hurting me all that much from the baseline," Medvedev said. "And in the end, I cannot say I done something wrong. I think he just played unbelievable. He deserves all the credit. Believe me, he knew that by winning that match, he's making the history.

"He has a right to say now that he's a greater player than, let's say, Pete [Sampras], by winning all four Grand Slams. It's an argument that he can have, and he deserves the right. I'm not saying who is the greater. My job is to play tennis but I say, there is now a heavy argument."

Sampras, who has ended each of the previous six seasons ranked No. 1, has 11 Grand Slam titles, but not one French Open title among them.

But if there is an argument over whether Sampras or Agassi is better, Agassi was not getting into that.

"Certainly what I've managed to accomplish is astonishing on a certain level," said Agassi. "Only a few players have done this. But what Pete has done only one other player [Roy Emerson with 12 Grand Slams] has done, so, he's definitely dominated the '90s."

A rain delay after the first game of the second set didn't immediately improve Agassi's play. But it did give him a chance to talk to Gilbert and figure out what he was doing wrong.

"I was soon down 6-1, 6-2," Agassi said later, "but at least I knew why. Sometimes you can run as hard as you can and not be getting anywhere, and you can grunt as loud as you can and not hit the ball hard at all."

Things were still going less than well at 4-4 in the third set. Medvedev had his chance to break and serve for the match.

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