His time came. He got out of his chair and started for the
baseline, rushing pigeon-toed across the red clay. Stubbled head
gleaming, eyes as big as quarters, a large towel draped over his
left shoulder: All of it looked familiar, but different too, for
here, at the defining moment of his career, Andre Agassi was
becoming a new man. Not everyone experiences a cleansing
redemption, but on Sunday, June 6, at 6:28 p.m. Paris time,
Agassi did. The sellout crowd at Court Central rallied shouts
back and forth--"Med-ved-ev!" "Ag-as-si!"--but no one doubted
who had taken hold of the 1999 French Open. Agassi hurried to a
ball boy and held out his racket. The boy placed three balls on
it; Agassi handed him the towel. Agassi turned, flipped one ball
away, shoved another in his pocket. Two words kept spinning
through his mind: No regrets.
There had been cause for so many. The three Wimbledons he
blithely skipped early in his career. The two-year fade-out that
left him ranked 141st in late 1997 and, he said, "embarrassed
just to be on the court." Most haunting, perhaps, were the two
losses he suffered at Roland Garros in the 1990 and '91 French
finals--to a 30-year-old Andres Gomez and then to a seemingly
inferior Jim Courier--matches that were supposed to certify his
greatness but planted the seeds for all future questions about
Now, at 29 and in a Grand Slam event that he had been but one
day of shoulder pain from not playing at all, Agassi made ready
to issue his answer. After being just two points from defeat in
the second round, after coming back from a set and two breaks
down to beat defending champion Carlos Moya in the fourth round,
after haplessly losing the first two sets to 100th-ranked Andrei
Medvedev and staring down a third-set break point in the final,
Agassi was suddenly standing at the baseline at 5-4 in the fifth
set, serving for the only Grand Slam championship that had
A cloud passed across the sun, covering the court in shadow.
Medvedev bent, waiting. Agassi tossed up the ball, and as always
before starting his swing, for one split second he froze.
June 13, 1999
It was a pivotal instant, and not just in Agassi's bid to become
only the fifth man--and the first since Rod Laver in the
1960s--to win all four Slam events in his career. One could well
argue that everything from the image of the men's game to the
legacy of this French Open rode on a victory for Agassi.
Consider: Until this final, the men's game in 1999 had been
marked by Pete Sampras's withdrawal from the Australian Open;
No. 1 Yevgeny Kafelnikov's remark that he doesn't care if he
wins tour events; and Marcelo Rios's claim that the men's tour
is "boring." While Medvedev, a 24-year-old Ukrainian, charmed
Paris with his revitalized relationship with both tennis and his
girlfriend, fellow pro Anke Huber, no one at NBC--whose
overnight ratings for the French men's final were 43% higher
than last year's--and no one on the ATP Tour had any illusion
about which of the finalists would have greater impact on the
game's fortunes. Agassi's star power and his highly publicized
divorce from actress Brooke Shields meant big viewing numbers
for the first time since--who else?--Agassi played in the 1995
U.S. Open final. Must See TV? For men's tennis in the '90s,
there has been only one surefire hit: Suddenly Andre.
"Is beautiful for me, for tennis, if Agassi is in the final,"
surprise semifinalist Fernando Meligeni of Brazil said last
week. "He has a lot of story. It's very beautiful for the
players and the crowd to look at him play. It's good for tennis
if he's in the top."
This French Open certainly owed Agassi. Always the circuit's
most capricious Slam, it seemed intent on ending the century at
its sadistic best. While fans endured a two-day citywide
transportation strike, sudden rain delays and whipping winds,
the men's draw produced three unseeded semifinalists for the
second time in three years--a feat no other Slam has achieved
even once. Until Sunday's final, this Paris fortnight seemed
destined to be remembered best for a grotesque on-court
collision between 1998 Wimbledon champion Jana Novotna and her
doubles partner, Natasha Zvereva--which left Novotna writhing in
the dust with a severely sprained ankle--and for the appalling
antics of women's No. 1 seed Martina Hingis. For the last two
years the distaff tour has been riding a sweet wave of publicity
and looking down its nose at the men's circuit, but after
Hingis's astonishing meltdown in her 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 loss to
Steffi Graf in Saturday's final, it has a problem. Hingis, the
premier female player of her generation and the tour's
standard-bearer, has revealed herself, at 18, to be a thoroughly
There had been earlier hints. Her cool put-downs of opponents
had been chalked up to immaturity, but Hingis's public
description of openly gay player Amelie Mauresmo as "half a man"
at the '99 Australian Open had dismayed her peers. This spring
the 30-year-old Novotna said that Hingis, in abruptly ending
their doubles partnership, had told her that she was "old and
slow." Hingis vehemently denies that--though she says she likes
playing with her new partner, 18-year-old Anna Kournikova, with
whom she reached the French doubles final, because Kournikova is
young and energetic--but it's easy to imagine her saying it. In
the summer of 1997, Hingis had said that Graf, then out with the
knee injury that nearly sent her into retirement, was past her
The day before the French women's final, Graf said Hingis's
presumption hadn't motivated her recovery. "I know why I'm out
there," she said. "I'm not touched much by it."
Then came Saturday. After taking a 6-4, 2-0 lead, Hingis grew
irate when she hit a forehand that kissed the baseline yet was
called out. The chair umpire refused to overrule the line judge,
but Hingis, who had already received a warning for racket abuse,
wouldn't drop the matter. First she marched around the net and
all the way to Graf's baseline--a glaring violation of
etiquette--and pointed out the mark allegedly left by the ball.
Then, amid a cascade of whistles and boos, Hingis decided to sit
in her chair until she received satisfaction. (She resumed
playing after she received a point penalty that placed her one
infraction from an automatic default.) "I've never seen that
before," Graf said of Hingis's invasion. "Everybody knows you're
never supposed to do that. I was stunned."
There was more. Hingis served for the match at 5-4, and when
Graf broke her by repeatedly slicing that legendary backhand and
winning a breathless 32-ball rally, Hingis unraveled. Graf took
the second set and the first three games of the third. As the
18-year-old's prospects for taking the one Slam she hasn't won
grew more remote by the minute, she became increasingly
petulant, and the already pro-Graf crowd grew howlingly hostile
to Hingis. Even while the tennis rose to a superb level--this
was the best match, men's or women's, of the tournament--Hingis
invited catcalls by slamming away one ball offered to her by a
ball boy, by cheapening Graf's two match points with underhand
serves and then, when it was all over, by bolting from the court
and refusing to return for the awards ceremony until her mother,
Melanie Molitor, came down from the stands and insisted she do
so. Hugging and half-dragging her sobbing daughter, Molitor
escorted her back onto the court.
That Hingis had been shattered by the loss was no excuse for
what happened next. While sitting, still sniffling, in her
courtside chair, she was approached by WTA communications
manager Raquel Martin, who knelt beside her to tell her it was
time to join Graf onstage. Hingis whipped down her left hand and
struck Martin on the arm. (Hingis was fined $1,500 for
unsportsmanlike conduct during the match, but as of Monday the
WTA had yet to announce whether she'll also be fined for
smacking Martin.) Hingis then walked onto the stage and, before
graciously speaking French to the crowd and congratulating Graf,
listened as perhaps the greatest women's player in history, the
winner of 22 Slam titles and six French Open trophies, told her
she would win this one too someday.
Hingis doesn't disagree. Later, she said she found nothing
objectionable about her behavior during or after the match. She
insisted that she had outplayed Graf and that "it's probably too
hard to understand me, the way I am, the way I play, because it
just looks too easy." Asked if she had learned anything, Hingis
said, "Come on. I think I learned enough just by standing there,
having to go back out to the ceremony, just smile at everybody.
I think I have a charisma. If the people don't see it, how my
game is, [and think] that I don't deserve this tournament, O.K.
There are next years to come. I'll show it to everybody that I
can win this tournament."
For her part, the 29-year-old Graf said she'd never been in a
match so "completely bizarre. Nothing even close." She'd never
been in a Grand Slam event for which she'd felt so ill-prepared,
either, yet somehow she became the first woman in the Open era
to beat the top three seeds--Hingis, No. 2 Lindsay Davenport and
No. 3 Monica Seles--en route to a Grand Slam title. Graf was so
taken with her own effort, in fact, that she called it the
greatest win of her career and announced that she had made her
last appearance as a player at Roland Garros. "I can't be any
better," she said.
Agassi knows the feeling. Like Graf, he hadn't sniffed a Grand
Slam final in years. But in contrast to Graf's meteoric rise to
greatness, Agassi's 13-year run has been a dismaying combination
of gorgeous shotmaking and an inability to focus for long
stretches. It was unclear which would win out: his talent or the
tangents. Early in the tournament's first week, the 13th-seeded
Agassi admitted that he couldn't tell if his career was
something to be proud of or to regret. "I'm not sure how it will
all play out," he said.
His off-court life has demonstrated the same confusion: The man
who kneeled at his chair to pray just after the French final was
the same man who, when asked after his second-round win if he'd
been aided by his opponent's cramping, smiled and said, "Screw
you very much." In that light it's no surprise to hear Agassi
say that his divorce was "a good thing" or that he talked to
Shields every day during the French Open. "She's working hard on
a movie," he said. "She wanted to be here for the final. I
wanted her to be here too. She's supported me the whole way.
That's what we've built."
Still, that in this tournament Agassi would change how his game
is perceived was something nobody could have predicted. A week
before the French, he pulled out of a tournament in Dusseldorf
because of an inflamed tendon in his right shoulder. The pain
dogged his preparations for Paris, and if it had lasted another
day, Agassi said, he wouldn't have played. Yet with this win
Agassi, earring dangling, joined the august All-Grand Slams club
of Fred Perry, Don Budge, Laver and Roy Emerson. Laver handed
Agassi the trophy on Sunday, but an equally appropriate
presenter would have been Jimmy Connors, the only man besides
Agassi to have won Slams on three surfaces. And while Sampras's
count of 11 Slam titles is out of Agassi's reach, he now owns
the only one Sampras lacks. "He has a right to say he's a
greater player than Pete," Medvedev said of Agassi. "It's an
argument he deserves to have."
Because he earned it. Medvedev came out blazing in the opening
two sets on Sunday, winning an amazing 100% of his first-serve
points against the game's finest returner and going up 6-1, 6-2.
But despite playing terribly and feeling "in shock," Agassi
figured Medvedev couldn't maintain that level of play. He worked
out the kinks in his backhand and pounced when Medvedev began to
sag. Agassi won the third and fourth sets 6-4, 6-3. It had been
15 years since a man--Ivan Lendl, in Paris--clawed back from two
sets down to win a Grand Slam final, but Agassi had no choice.
On Saturday night, visions of 1990 and '91 had danced in his
head. "It's hard to come so close to your dreams and not get
there," Agassi would say after the match. "For me not to win
today would have been devastating."
At 5-4 and 40-15 in the fifth set, Agassi tossed up the ball,
hesitated and swung. It was 6:30 p.m. Paris time. He cracked the
ball into the service box, wide to Medvedev's forehand. Medvedev
jerked the return long. Agassi dropped his racket as the noise
in Court Central swallowed him whole. His face crumpled in
shock. He wept uncontrollably, but his tears weren't like
Hingis's the day before. Medvedev came around the net, but it
wasn't like the trespass of the day before, either. Medvedev
grabbed Agassi. The two men hugged.
Later Agassi took the trophy in his hands and squeezed his eyes
shut. He blew out a long breath, raised the cup above his head
and again began to cry as the people shouted his name. It had
all played out.
He regretted nothing.
Hingis, the premier female player of her generation, has revealed
herself, at 18, to be a thoroughly disagreeable brat.