For Agassi, it's another high-five

Following Slam feat, win over Kafelnikov earns 5th D.C. title

August 23, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Historic moments are piling up for Andre Agassi this year.

His French Open victory came first and brought with it the recognition of becoming the fifth man in tennis history to win all four Grand Slam tournaments in a career.

Yesterday, at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, Agassi won the D.C. tournament for the fifth time, successfully defending last year's title by beating Yevgeny Kafelnikov, 7-6 (7-3), 6-1.

"You don't know this," Agassi said to the crowd as he accepted a large crystal bowl and a check for $99,000, "but when I first played here in 1986, it was incredibly hot and I lost in the first round, 6-0, in the third set.

"In those days, I was a little unpredictable -- I guess I still am sometimes. But I decided at that moment to give away all my rackets and quit tennis. I'm glad I didn't go through with it."

It had been, he said later, a decision he had considered for only a split second in a moment of anger. He got over the anger and kept playing. If he hadn't, history may have been made by someone else.

Yesterday marked the first time in his career he has won the same event five times. And he is the only five-time champion at the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center; Jimmy Connors and Guillermo Vilas each won three times.

"It's great to play on a court you're so comfortable on, in an area where you've had so much success," Agassi said. "And in the match today, Yevgeny forced me to play real well. This was great preparation for the Open."

The U.S. Open begins a week from today in New York, with No. 1 Pete Sampras, new No. 2 Agassi and new No. 3 Kafelnikov seemingly at the top of their games.

"I'm sure Pete's hip hurts now," Agassi said of his longtime nemesis, who had to withdraw from last week's tournament in Indianapolis due to a hip injury. "But I'm also very sure he'll be fine next week."

Agassi and Kafelnikov also expect to be fine, judging by the way they smashed the ball yesterday before a sellout crowd of 7,500 on Stadium Court.

"I felt like I had my chances," Kafelnikov said. "I had a break point in the first game of the second set, but he came up with the big shots at the right time and that was the difference really.

"Andre has found his motivation back again. It's nice for the fans to see him and me in a match like this."

Agassi was able to notch the first break of serve and go up 2-1 in the first set. But Kafelnikov turned around and broke back immediately to even the set. It was the first time in the tournament that Agassi had been broken and, as it turned out, the only time.

"It doesn't make me proud of myself that I broke him," said Kafelnikov, who won $52,000. "I wanted this title. But we match up well. Our games are the same. We both like to set up points at the baseline and finish at the net. It makes for spectacular long points with great finishes.

"Today, his ego was just very strong. He was looking for revenge from Montreal and he played the big points well."

In Montreal two weeks ago, Kafelnikov was the one who never lost a break point in a 6-1, 6-4 win. In fact, in his match with Agassi, he never had a break point on his serve and Agassi won just eight points in nine Kafelnikov service games all day.

Yesterday, in the first set, it took a tie-breaker to decide who was better.

On serve at 3-4, Kafelnikov gave Agassi a short ball that he nailed with a blazing backhand passing down the line. On Kafelnikov's next serve, Agassi guessed right and attacked the ball early, putting the Russian off balance enough that he forced his backhand into the net.

It was set point then, and when Kafelnikov sent a defensive lob into the air, Agassi smashed it for the winner.

"My philosophy is that if the ball goes up in the air, I'm going to crush it," said Agassi, who has lost one set in 25 matches during his five years as a champion here.

The second set went fast. Kafelnikov, the Australian Open champ and No. 1 seed here, did have a break point on Agassi in the first game, but Agassi put an end to it with a 116-mph ace. Two more big serves and they were into the second game, and Kafelnikov wasn't so lucky.

"Yevgeny was still playing very well," Agassi said. "But I played really well."

Agassi broke through in the second game and again in the fourth for a 4-0 lead, and there was no more doubt.

"I was making an impression on his second serve," Agassi said. "I was on it pretty good. And I felt I got him a little winded at times. If he had gotten that one break point in the second set, in hindsight, it might have made a difference, but I was working hard, playing hard. I wasn't going anywhere. It could have changed things, but we'll never know."

But we do know that Agassi will carry the No. 2 world ranking into the U.S. Open, and thus not have to worry about Sampras -- who has beaten him the past three times they've played -- until a potential meeting in the final.

Kafelnikov, meanwhile, drops to No. 3, and a coin flip will decide which half of the Open draw he'll be in. With Sampras and Agassi the top two seeds, neither is very appealing.

"Since the French, everything in my life is icing on the cake," Agassi said. "And I knew after the French, if I could play my best tennis, it would be on hard courts. The quality of the tennis I'm playing gives me a lot of confidence, and I'm looking forward to New York."

Pub Date: 8/23/99

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