The tears came just seconds afterward, as well as the hugs and the blown kisses. But at the precise moment Andre Agassi won the French Open today, all he could do was drop his racket like it was on fire, throwing his hands into the air with his mouth hung open in a mixture of joy and disbelief.
Even for the ultimate comeback kid, this one was incredible. After falling grossly behind in the first two sets, Agassi defeated Andrei Medvedev, 1-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4. But the accomplishment extended much further than the fine red clay of Roland Garros: Just two years after falling to No. 140 in the rankings, Agassi became the first man in 30 years to complete a career Grand Slam.
"There are so many reasons I have to be overwhelmed at this particular moment -- I couldn't find the words for it," said Agassi, 29. "I don't know if I'll ever be able to put words to it."
Only four other men have won the four major tennis titles, and no one has done it since Rod Laver swept the Grand Slams in 1969. Tournaments were played on grass and clay at that time, making Agassi the first man to accomplish the feat on three surfaces. He won Wimbledon on grass in 1992, the U.S. Open on a hard court in '94 and the Australian Open on a hard court in '95.
"I feel somewhat numb," he said almost an hour after the victory, his eyes wide and his voice occasionally cracking. "There's so many reasons why this is special to me. Certainly the accomplishment of winning every Slam speaks for itself, and to accomplish it on clay, which has been very difficult for me.
"Today it almost feels like it had nothing to do with me. It's almost like it was sheer destiny."
Agassi was overwrought with emotion from the moment Medvedev returned his serve long on championship point. He began crying even before reaching the net to shake Medvedev's hand, and when Medvedev crossed over to Agassi's side of the court to give him a hug, the sprinkle of tears turned into a flood.
Soon, Agassi was hugging almost everyone he could find, pausing to salute the fans in what has become his ritual: Facing each side of the stands individually, Agassi bowed and blew a kiss before turning to the next side. The crowd of 16,000, which had been firmly behind him all day, roared its approval, as did the 24-year-old Medvedev, who seemed genuinely pleased for Agassi while remaining aware of the giant opportunity he had lost.
"As a competitor, I'm disappointed that I came up short, but I came up short to a great player," said Medvedev, who was playing his first Grand Slam final. "Inside, I'm smiling. I'm very satisfied with the two weeks I've had. Regardless of what happens to me in the future, if I win four Grand Slams in a row, these two weeks will for sure be the best two weeks of my life. I came up short, but then I didn't think I would go this far in the first place."
A top-five player at the age of 19, Medvedev had fallen to No. 100 by the beginning of this tournament and was the lowest-ranked man ever to reach a final at Roland Garros. He had defeated No. 2 seed Pete Sampras and clay-court favorite Gustavo Kuerten to get there, but even he was surprised with how easily he was able to blow by Agassi at the start of the match.
Medvedev took 19 minutes to win the first set, and he began cruising through the second set despite a rain delay that Agassi had hoped would help him get his game together. When Agassi double-faulted to hand Medvedev a key break near the end of the second set, the crowd groaned, fearing Agassi's fate had been sealed. Even Agassi's first break of Medvedev's serve midway through the third set seemed fruitless as Medvedev broke Agassi back immediately at love.
It wasn't until later in the third set that Agassi seemed to snap out of his malaise. With the score tied at 4, Agassi double-faulted twice in a row to give Medvedev a break point. It took another deuce, but Agassi held serve, giving him new life and the match a new direction.
"I was in shock -- embarrassed, actually," Agassi said. "I was really disappointed with the fact that the final was potentially a blowout. At that point, I was just trying to stay alive and hoping something good would happen."
Agassi said he began flashing back to the two French Open finals he had lost near the beginning of his career, to Andres Gomez in '90 and to Jim Courier in '91. Those performances, along with a '91 U.S. Open final loss to Sampras, left Agassi tagged as a player who could never win a big match. His wild inconsistency over the years, even after he won his first three Grand Slam titles, left many questioning whether he'd end his career wasting his dazzling talent.
Midway through today's match, even Agassi wondered if losing to Medvedev would be too much too bear.
"It's one of the hardest feelings in the world to come so close to your dreams -- I've done it," he said.
"Although I could have lived with it, losing would have been devastating to me."
Agassi was able to stay in the match by breaking Medvedev to win the third set, shaking the Ukrainian's confidence. Then, as the fourth and fifth sets wore on, it almost seemed as if Agassi drained Medvedev's energy, getting stronger and more aggressive as Medvedev grew frustrated. Medvedev still outserved Agassi -- he finished the match with 23 aces to Agassi's two -- but in the end it was Agassi's service game that won him the title when Medvedev's forehand return on championship point flew behind the baseline.
With his victory in the French Open, Andre Agassi became the fifth man to win all four events in the Grand Slam of tennis.
How Agassi did it:
Wimbledon -- Champion, 1992
U.S. Open -- Champion, 1994
Australian Open -- Champion, 1995
French Open -- Champion, 1999
The Grand Slam Club
Andre Agassi 1992-99
Fred Perry 1933-36
Don Budge 1938
Roy Emerson 1961-67
Rod Laver 1962, 1969
Note: Years indicate when Grand Slam victories occurred.
CAPTION: Andre Agassi, who had plummeted to No. 140 in the world rankings two years ago, caps comeback with French Open trophy.
CAPTION: Andre Agassi rallies for 1-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 French Open win over Andrei Medvedev to become first man in 30 years to complete a career Grand Slam.