A year before Andre Agassi was born, the Rock Creek Park tennis tournament came into being. Now, both have come of age at roughly the same time. Bigger things may be ahead for both.

The Washington tournament has been called many things since its inception in 1969 -- insufferable, tacky and an insult to tradition among them.

But then, so has Agassi.

Now, folks in tennis are being forced to say nice stuff about both the Sovran Bank Classic and the ultra-cocky 20-year-old neon baseliner from Las Vegas.

In fact, Jim Grabb -- who lost yesterday's Sovran final to Agassi in 62 minutes, 6-1, 6-4 -- hit the nail on the head about both the event and its new champion.

"This tournament is quickly evolving into one of the best on the circuit. It's one I think players will support in the future," said Grabb. Later, he added: "They've done wonders since I was here in 1985. . . . Facilities, crowds, staff, locker rooms -- great. . . . I told them all they could do to make this tournament better was to put a huge industrial-sized air conditioner beside he court."

As for Agassi, The Strip's gift to the Brie Set, Grabb said: Three years ago "he was 20 pounds lighter. . . . He was a highly talented, skinny kid who was up and down mentally. . . . Now, he's a world-class player. . . .

"A few years ago, he {also} was very responsive to the crowds. He never did anything maliciously, but the crowd ate up some of the things he did and the other players didn't appreciate it.

"Now, there's nothing offensive that he does."

Well, let's not go that far. A kid who skips Wimbledon every year can't be all good. Just as 16th and Kennedy streets is always going to be a sweat box in July, so Agassi is always going to be true to his roots. His dad was a Vegas show master and he's a master of show.

Agassi honestly believes that pink, black and white match perfectly and that the only thing better than shoulder-length blond hair is shoulder-length blond hair with black roots. Agassi believes that when confronted with a choice between showing respect for tradition or making a bunch of money, the money usually wins.

Although Agassi is ranked fourth, he may well have more total annual income than the men ranked above him: Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg. Agassi switched racket models last year for a million dollars. He's a punk-tinged teen angel with huge poster sales. He jokes that "I hate to play at night because it's past most of my fans' bedtime." And he's got a clothes line for every sort of apparel that can be made in day-glo or hot-lava colors.

Heretofore, Agassi has been known more for his low fashion and high dudgeon, his entourage (of bodyguards and personal trainers) and his know-it-all quips than for his tennis. He's been a top 10 player for three years but hasn't won a Grand Slam title. If that seems a ridiculously high standard, it should be noted that many tennis champions emerge very young.

By Agassi's age, Becker, Edberg and Bjorn Borg had won majors. John McEnroe won the U.S. Open at 20 and Jimmy Connors won three-fourths of the Grand Slam at 21. It's not too soon for Agassi to peak. And he may be doing just that.

"He's hitting with such pace. He's seeing the ball early, he's playing in close and he's just clocking it," said Grabb.

For the last couple years, Agassi has been known as the kid whose best trait was his passion to prove that "tennis can be fun." He's thrown his shirt to the crowd, punctuated his play with grunts and squeals and tries the bravest (and silliest) shots at any time. His worst trait was that, when tennis stopped being fun, when the match was long and tough, when the foe was conditioned and mean, Agassi would come dangerously close to quitting.

That was before he discovered muscles. Now, the Nevada-Las Vegas strength coach, Gil Reyes, frequently accompanies Agassi. Reyes was the tasteful chap at courtside yesterday in the Hawaiian pants, the black skin-tight shirt and the rakish hat. If that didn't identify him, let it be added that he was the only person in the crowd who should've been assigned three seats.

"Every day that goes by, I'm more aware of the talent I've been given," said Agassi after his match, sounding, for once, like he wasn't bragging but perhaps thinking about his responsibility to that talent. "Now, I have fun making my opponents work. I like that competition and intensity. I used to think 'Gotta beat 'em quick.' Now, the longer the match goes, the better I think I'll get and the other guy will come down some. I'm just different now."

So is the Sovran. In the beginning, when this event was called the Washington Star International, it didn't have a 7,500-seat, $10 million stadium with labyrinth air-conditioned locker rooms and enclosed luxury suites where the only sound is of Perrier tinkling in an icy glass.

Back then, seating capacity was 500 -- all bleacher seats. No showers existed and players removed the clay dust that caked them once they got back to the homes of volunteers who housed them. The idea of an air conditioner on those 98-degree days was unknown. Reporters had to work so near the courts that the players yelled, "Stop that typing," only to hear grouchy retorts, "I'm on deadline."

These days, even a guy such as Agassi, who has penthouse tastes and says things like, "The other day when I was washing one of my cars," thinks the Sovran is up to his standards. "My {courtesy hotel} room looked like a house," he said. "I didn't even recognize this {stadium}. It's truly enjoyable for the players."

In some years, this event drew weak to awful to downright comedic fields. There were three reasons: the heat, the clay and the facilities. The clay is gone, replaced by hard courts like those at the U.S. Open. And the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center -- while not to be mistaken for the National Gallery of Art -- is pretty ritzy for a ballpark.

"It was a run down event," said Brad Gilbert this week. "It was like being in {Class} A baseball." Added Eliot Teltscher: "Where did all the trailers go? This {event} has gone from mediocre to fantastic."

After his victory, Agassi was asked if he'll be back to defend. "I do hope," he began, teasing, then said, "I will come back next year."

This time, Agassi never lost a set, despite a fairly tough field that included McEnroe, Michael Chang, Gilbert and Tim Mayotte. Next year, even if Agassi returns with a Grand Slam title in his pink pocket, he may find that the competition here in the refurbished Sovran will be even stiffer.