It would have been hard to believe more than a decade ago that the kid with the long, streaked-blond hair, stomach-baring shirts and dangling earring would ever crash one of the most exclusive clubs in the staid sport of tennis. However, an older, wiser -- and balding -- Andre Agassi became the first man in 30 years to complete a career singles Grand Slam today when he won the French Open at Roland Garros.
Agassi lost the first two sets of his best-of-five match against Ukrainian Andrei Medvedev but rallied to win the only major title he didn't own. Only four other men have won all four of the major events that make up tennis's Grand Slam, and no one has done it since Rod Laver swept them all in 1969. Agassi won Wimbledon in 1992, the U.S. Open in 1994 and the Australian Open in 1995.
"This is certainly the greatest feeling I've ever had on a tennis court, and I don't think it's even sunk in yet," Agassi said, staring at his silver trophy with awe. He touched it every few seconds as he spoke, as if still unsure it was sitting in front of him.
"It's been a lot of years since I've had this opportunity, and I never dreamed I'd see this day. I just want to say thank you to all the people who never stopped believing in me."
Agassi, 29, certainly has provided plenty of reasons to doubt him over the years. As a teenager, he smashed his way to rock-star status with rebellious looks and a series of television commercials proclaiming "Image is everything." He showed flashes of incredible talent, moving to No. 3 in the world rankings in 1988 and advancing to the final of three Grand Slam tournaments in 1990 and 1991. But after losing all of those matches, he was tagged with a reputation of not being able to win when it mattered most.
He shed that status when he finally won Wimbledon, and although the U.S. and Australian open titles followed, so did rashes of inconsistent play at other tournaments. He began tumbling down the world rankings, dropping to No. 140 in 1997, while his personal life became the stuff of tabloid fodder as he courted, married and divorced actress Brooke Shields. Even those closest to Agassi seemed stunned today to see him rise from all the chaos to grab another Grand Slam trophy.
"I've met a lot of people in my life, but Andre has the most God-given talent I've ever seen," said Agassi's coach Brad Gilbert, a former player. "From the depths of nowhere, he's got nothing on Houdini sometimes. Sometimes you expect the most from him and he gives you the least. Sometimes when you think there's no way he could show you this again, he reaches back and grabs some magic like no one else can."
Agassi needed every trick he could think of today as he came back for a 1-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 victory after the hard-serving Medvedev overwhelmed him early in the match. He lost the first set in 19 minutes as heavy winds created swirls of dust, lifting the fine red clay that constitutes Roland Garros's courts across the stadium. Even a rain delay during the second set couldn't help Agassi change the match's momentum.
Late in the third set, however, Agassi summoned the game of his youth.
Brushing off two consecutive double faults, Agassi fought off a critical break point, then broke Medvedev's serve to win the third set. He seemed to get stronger as the afternoon wore on, and in the end his serve -- his fragile serve, which produced only two aces to Medvedev's 23 -- won him the match.
The tears started almost as soon as Medvedev hit a return long on championship point, and they only came faster after Medvedev came around the net to hug him.
"I cannot say I did anything wrong, because he just played unbelievably," Medvedev said. "He was writing the history books of tennis. He has a right to say now that he's a greater player than, let's say, Pete [Sampras] by him winning all four Grand Slams. It's an argument he can have. He has the right to have it."
Sampras, a rival of Agassi's since the two were teenagers, is widely viewed as one of the greatest players ever. He has won 11 Grand Slam titles -- seven more than Agassi and one short of all-time men's leader Roy Emerson. But Sampras never has won the French Open, leaving Agassi to join Fred Perry, Don Budge, Emerson and Laver as the only men who have won all four titles. Budge and Laver each swept the Grand Slam tournaments in one year, with Budge doing so in 1938, and Laver in 1962 and 1969. However, only Agassi has accomplished the feat on three surfaces. The U.S. and Australian opens, which are played on hard courts, used to be played on grass, just as Wimbledon is.
"Certainly what I've managed to accomplish is astonishing on a certain level," Agassi said. "What Pete has done, only a few players have done as well -- one actually. He's definitely dominated the '90s, but I can honestly go to sleep at night and say I wouldn't give up my career for anybody's."
Several women have completed the career Grand Slam, with Steffi Graf most recently sweeping all four tournaments in 1988. Once the women's tour's dominant player, Graf's career had fallen off even more sharply than Agassi's a year ago as a series of injuries dropped her from the world rankings entirely. But Graf too had a resurgence at this year's French Open, coming from behind to defeat top-ranked Martina Hingis in an emotional women's singles final Saturday. Venus and Serena Williams, who came into the tournament among the favorites, finished instead with the women's doubles title, defeating Hingis and Russian phenom Anna Kournikova today.
After her victory, Graf announced she would no longer play the French Open, keeping her memory of Roland Garros sweet with the taste of her 22nd career Grand Slam title. Agassi made no such proclamations today.
"She's won 22 Slams, and she's never lost her intensity over the years," Agassi said of Graf. "It's easy to see why she might feel tired. Me, I've taken leaves of absence for years at a time. I feel like a spring chicken."
CAPTION: Andre Agassi, with a come-from-behind, five-set victory over Andrei Medvedev, is the fifth man to win tennis's four Grand Slam events.
CAPTION: American sisters Venus, left, and Serena Williams embrace after winning the French Open women's doubles championship. Story on Page D10.
CAPTION: Andre Agassi is openly affectionate with trophy, having all but kissed off his chances after not reaching final since '91.
CAPTION: Andrei Medvedev, left, and Agassi embrace after match's end. "I cannot say I did anything wrong, because he just played unbelievably," Medvedev said.
CAPTION: Andrei Medvedev, left, after losing match: "I cannot say I did anything wrong, because he just played unbelievably."