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Agassi picks substance over style

Posted: Sunday, January 28, 2001

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Andre Agassi no longer feels the need to be flashy. He wore a bland black and white outfit to work Sunday, then played tennis that was smart and steady rather than spectacular.

The approach worked. Agassi won his third Australian Open title by dominating a baseline battle with surprise finalist Arnaud Clement 6-4, 6-2, 6-2.

''I was down here with a purpose,'' Agassi said. ''It was great for it to turn out the way it did.''

The Grand Slam tournament title is his seventh, including four since he turned 29 two years ago.

''I've had those years where tennis hasn't been the top priority,'' he said. ''There can be some regrets there, but I think that has saved me for the long run. I think my best tennis can still be ahead of me.''

When Agassi cracked a backhand winner on the first championship point, he doffed his cap, shook hands with Clement, raised his fists and blew a kiss to his girlfriend, Steffi Graf. Then Agassi responded to a standing ovation with his customary bow to the four sides of the stadium.

Agassi, the defending champion, won a major tournament in back-to-back years for the first time. He was also the Australian Open champion in 1995.

''You never know when the last time you're going to be here is,'' Agassi said during the trophy ceremony. ''It never ceases to be overwhelming. All the work and all the training that goes into putting yourself in this position is difficult and hard, but it's worth it.''

Clement, gracious in defeat, apologized for his poor English and then read a long prepared speech that charmed the crowd.

''To compete in a Grand Slam final is something that seems unreal to me,'' Clement said. He then paused, choking back tears. ''I would like to congratulate Andre for his tournament and his fantastic career.''

The sixth-seeded Agassi controlled most of the rallies and wore down the speedy, 142-pound Clement by running him from side to side. It was a smart tactic because the 15th-seeded Frenchman was coming off the longest match of the tournament, a four-hour, five-set semifinal win Friday over countryman Sebastien Grosjean.

Agassi enjoyed another advantage: experience. He was playing in his 12th Grand Slam tournament final, Clement his first. Clement was the first Frenchman to reach the Australian Open final since Jean Borotra in 1928.

''I had to answer his weapons and impose mine,'' Agassi said. ''I think I did a pretty good job of that.''

There was no chance of Agassi taking the matchup lightly, because Clement beat him in the second round of last year's U.S. Open.

''Today his game was two or three levels higher, and it was for me just too impossible to beat him today,'' Clement said. ''Impossible. For me, impossible.''

While Agassi made the victory look routine, he said he had butterflies beforehand.

''You're a nervous wreck,'' he said. ''Last night at dinner I had a hard time eating. Everything is just tense, and you're just excited. That lets you know you still love what you do.''

On a cool, sunny summer day, Agassi started quickly. He earned two early service breaks for a 4-1 lead, served out the first set at love, then broke again at love in the next game.

By the end of the second set, Agassi had a frustrated Clement talking to himself.

''C'mon, what's this?'' he said in French after double-faulting.

Despite hitting just 13 winners -- an uncharacteristically low total -- Agassi kept Clement on the defensive and closed out the victory in 1 hour, 46 minutes.

With seven Grand Slam tournament titles, he ties John McEnroe, John Newcombe, Mats Wilander and five others for 10th on the men's list. He moves ahead of Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg, who won six major titles each.

The only other man to win three Australian Open titles in the Open era is Wilander.

''It's history,'' Agassi said. ''The more experience you get, the more you allow yourself to enjoy it.''

Now the question becomes whether Agassi can sustain his fast start this year. After winning the 2000 Australian Open, he failed to win another tournament or reach another Grand Slam tournament final.

Agassi's victory meant an American sweep of singles for the fifth time in the past seven Grand Slam events. Jennifer Capriati won her first major title Saturday by upsetting top-seeded Martina Hingis.

Agassi earned $473,385 and Clement received $236,693.



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