Federer reaches new heights

Agassi's emotional charge through U.S. Open ends in final with four-set loss

September 12, 2005|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - In 20 years of playing tennis at the U.S. Open, so much has changed for Andre Agassi - his clothes, his hair, his attitude, his wives. In many respects, the world has watched him grow up and now grow old here, watched him evolve from a cocky, brash teenager into a philosophical family man.

But over the course of so many Septembers, one thing about Agassi has never changed. His face, and especially his eyes, have never been good at helping him hide his emotions. This is especially true in big moments, in both good times and bad, and as a result, one needed only to look at Agassi's face yesterday to understand his match against Roger Federer in the U.S. Open men's singles final.

At times, there was euphoria, especially in the third set, when Agassi broke Federer's serve to take a 4-2 lead, truly putting the world's No. 1 player against the ropes. But euphoria was soon replaced by frustration and then disappointment.

In the end, when Federer rallied to take the third set and then the fourth, closing out an impressive 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (1), 6-1 victory, Agassi's face betrayed a hint of sadness. He had never played so well and lost, and so that was some consolation, but at the age of 35, it was hard to deny the obvious as he sat courtside soaking up the applause. The end of the road might not be here just yet, but who knows how many Grand Slam finals he has left in his future? Maybe, just maybe, this might also be goodbye.

"Over the last 20 years, I've come full circle," Agassi said. "It's been an amazing journey and discovery of each other as I've grown up out here. To be here at an age when I can embrace it is a tremendous feeling. I'll never forget this."

Any other opponent besides Federer, and Agassi might have found a way to grind out a historic victory. But as he has done so many times the past two years, Federer proved once again why he may, in fact, be one of the greatest players in the history of tennis before he is done. He's the only player other than Bill Tilden in 1920-1921 and Don Budge in 1937-1938 to win both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in back-to-back years, and he now has won 23 consecutive finals.

"He got me a few times early in my career when I maybe looked like a little schoolboy," Federer said. "Now, it's kind of nice to have an even match."

In the news conference after the match, Agassi didn't hold back with his praise, even going so far as to put Federer ahead of his old rival, Pete Sampras.

"He's the best I've ever played against," Agassi said of Federer. "Pete was great. I mean, no question. But there was a place to get to with Pete where you knew what you had to do. If you could do it, it could be on your terms. There's no such place like that with Roger. ... He's the only guy I've ever played against where you hold serve to go 1-0 and you're thinking, `All right, good.' He can hurt you at any point."

That was especially apparent during the third set, right after Agassi had just broken to take a 4-2 lead.

The players were tied at one set apiece, and if Agassi could just hold serve, a ninth career Grand Slam victory would be a realistic possibility. But leading 30-0, Agassi watched it slip away in agonizing fashion. In mid-rally, Federer hit an inside-out backhand that just clipped the line, and from that point everything seemed to change.

Federer rallied to break Agassi's serve, then raised his game in a manner that looked both smooth and effortless. He dominated the third-set tiebreaker, winning 6-1, in many ways breaking Agassi's spirit in the process. The crowd tried valiantly, encouraging Agassi to get back into it, but it was simply too much of an uphill climb. Federer breezed through the fourth set with renewed confidence, and quickly taking a 5-0 lead before Agassi managed to win one last service game - and get one last standing ovation - before Federer closed out the match.

"I amaze myself that I can back it up one tournament after another, keeping playing so well," Federer said.

"I always wonder why I play so well, especially on big occasions. It just seems to click with me. I think when I was down 4-2 in the third, I really started to feel my serve coming back. That's the first time I felt that the whole tournament. That it happened then, I was quite pleased with that."

Federer was quick to dismiss questions about whether or not he may be the best ever - for now.

"The best player of this generation? Yes," Federer said. "But nowhere close to ever. Just look at some of the records those guys have."

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