It was close -- bite-your-nails, hold-your-breath, sit-up-in-your-chair close -- in the first set of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic final yesterday, but when the second set got underway, Andre Agassi simply lifted his game and cruised to a 7-6 (7-3), 6-1 win over Yevgeny Kafelnikov at the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center.
The victory earned Agassi a record fifth Legg Mason title, $99,000 in prize money and the world's No. 2 ranking, which had belonged to Kafelnikov. In turn, Agassi will be seeded No. 2 at the upcoming U.S. Open, which guarantees that he will be in the opposite side of the draw from No. 1 Pete Sampras. Kafelnikov, who earned $52,000 in his first appearance in Washington, will drop to No. 3.
"It's interesting what it feels like to win a fifth title somewhere -- I've never done that before," Agassi said. "It seems only fitting that it's here. First, I love playing here so much, but also because the first time I played this tournament [in 1987], I lost in the first round, 0-6 in the third set.
"It was so hot, and my behavior was a bit unpredictable then. I decided after that match to give away all my rackets and quit tennis. Now I'm pretty glad I didn't do that."
So was the sellout crowd of 7,500, many of whom stayed into the evening to watch Justin Gimelstob and Sebastien Lareau defeat David Adams and John-Laffnie de Jager, 7-5, 6-7 (2-7), 6-3, in the doubles final.
Still, the electricity belonged to the afternoon and to Agassi, who is enjoying a career revival of epic proportions. Just two years after hitting bottom with a ranking of No. 141, Agassi has had a dream summer, winning the French Open, reaching the finals at Wimbledon and heading into the U.S. Open with his best chance to win since 1995.
Of course, he will have to deal with Sampras and No. 4 Patrick Rafter, as well as Kafelnikov, who said he will be looking for a rematch when the Open starts Aug. 30.
"We match up together pretty well," said Kafelnikov, who defeated Agassi at a tournament in Montreal earlier this month. "We like to set up at the baseline and finish at the net. We had some great points here with some spectacular finishes."
Agassi seemed dominant at the start of the match, winning his service game at love and then breaking Kafelnikov to jump ahead, 2-1. But when Agassi double-faulted in the next game and had a net cord trip up what should have been an easy overhead smash, Kafelnikov took advantage. He broke Agassi back, evening the score at 2 and ratcheting up the level of competition.
For the rest of the set, the players pounded groundstrokes at each other with bone-shaking force, occasionally coming into the net or playing the court's angles. Each time Agassi seemed ready to pull away, Kafelnikov would respond, taking his own turn at dictating play.
The set finally wore to a tiebreak, which stayed even until Agassi caught a mini-break to go up 5-3. He almost had lost the point a few strokes earlier, but he stretched to keep the ball in play and eventually won the point on a passing shot. Kafelnikov then dumped a backhand into the net to put Agassi up 6-3, and Agassi finished the tiebreaker with an overhead smash.
"The first set boiled down to one point, really, when he put me in a position to make the pass," Agassi said. "That seemed to be a big momentum changer, and then I stepped it up another level in the second set. He played well, but didn't quite step up to what was required in the second set."
Kafelnikov did have one real chance to get back into the match, reaching break point in the first game of the second set, but when he couldn't convert Agassi made him pay by shooting ahead to a 3-0 lead. Kafelnikov played strong on his next service game, but Agassi broke him again to take a 4-0 lead, setting up the victory.
"I had a break point in the first game of the second set, and had I capitalized the match could have been a different story, but he came up with the right shots at the right time," Kafelnikov said. "He's found his motivation again, and with the success he has had this year, he's definitely on the top of his game."
The fourth game of the second set was the only time in the entire tournament that Agassi lost his serve, and he never dropped a set here. Over the five years he has won the Legg Mason, he has lost just one set in 25 matches.
But more important than any statistic yesterday was the fact that he simply looked razor-sharp, wowing the crowd with shots that often danced just inside the court's white lines.
"This is the best tournament we've ever had in Washington, D.C., and the quality of the tennis in the finals was the best single set of tennis ever played here," said tournament director Ivan Blumberg, who noted that the week's total attendance of 69,703 was the highest in the tournament's 30-year history. Much of that bulge can be attributed to the tournament's move from July to late August, which in turn drew a better player field.
"We think we've demonstrated to the tennis community and to the players just what a great event we have, especially leading right into the U.S. Open," he said.