The long-haired, raucous, image-is-everything days are so far behind him that he can't even see them anymore, his gaze too obscured by all the shiny trophies he has collected. But Andre Agassi can distinguish what is in front of him with amazing clarity, and today he had the U.S. Open title in his sights.
Despite falling down, two sets to one, to fellow American Todd Martin, he kept his stare steady, and by the time the marathon match ended at 6-4, 6-7 (7-5), 6-7 (7-2), 6-3, 6-2, he had another prize to add to his stockpile.
The victory gives Agassi his fifth Grand Slam title and his second this year. Agassi won the French Open in June; he won the U.S. Open once before, in 1994.
"There's a certain special feeling this time that I wasn't able to appreciate the last time," said Agassi, who will re-take the world's No. 1 ranking on Monday. "It was more emotional last time, and this time it feels quite real to me.
"I've changed a lot. Somebody showed me a picture recently and asked me who it was. I looked at it said, 'Wow, she's cute--nice figure, very narrow hips, nice legs and long, good hair.' And then all of the sudden, I went, 'Wow, that was me' " at 16 years old.
Agassi has changed in more than a physical way, although that metamorphosis has been astounding in itself. In just the last three years his physique has gone from sagging to strapping, giving him the endurance to finish out a match such as today's without giving away even one service break. But he has also changed his mental approach, displaying dedication and maturity throughout a summer in which he has won 35 of 39 matches.
Agassi said that if someone had told him in 1997 that he would be playing, thinking and--most of all--winning the way he is now, he would have "told them to stop smoking the crack pipe." Still, even when he was ranked as low as No. 141, he knew he had it in him to improve.
"At 27 years old, a lot of people were writing him off for the wrong reasons," said Brad Gilbert, Agassi's coach. "Pretty much Andre got to the point where he was because it was kind of self-inflicted. If he rededicated himself and gave everything he had, he was going to get everything back."
Agassi got it all back and more, becoming the first man in 30 years to complete a career Grand Slam when he won at Roland Garros earlier this year. Since then, he has carried a quiet assurance in every match he has played, a stash of confidence that served him well today against Martin, who came onto the court fighting despite being a heavy underdog.
When Agassi broke him in the match's first game, Martin just continued as if it had never happened, refusing to buckle under the heavy weight of Agassi's blistering service returns and bulky on-court presence. He almost leveled the first set by racking up three break points, and when that failed he charged forward once more in the second set. Finally, after battering Agassi with aces and charging volleys, Martin was able to even the match by winning the set's tiebreaker.
"As well as I did some things today, it will change my understanding of what I'm capable of doing, maybe," said Martin, who earned a career-high ranking of No. 4 with his performance here. By midway through the match, "I knew I had a chance to win, but I also knew I had a chance to lose."
Martin played another stellar set of games in the third set, and although he still could not break Agassi's serve, he took complete control of the tiebreaker to a two-sets-to-one lead that seriously threatened Agassi's cause. No man had come back from that kind of deficit here since John Newcombe claimed the title in 1973, and Martin, whose serves hovered over 120 mph, looked like he was on a roll.
"The way he played--it was just disappointing that someone had to lose," Agassi said. "He played so well, I felt I was hanging by a thread for much of the match. He was executing in ways that were giving me all sorts of problems."
But while Agassi later felt bad that Martin had to go home with the loser's trophy, he had no intention of leaving with it himself. From the beginning of the fourth set, he simply raised his level of play, committing just five unforced errors in the final two sets compared with the 20 committed by Martin. With the fourth-set score tied at 1, he watched Martin double-fault to set up break point and then took advantage, forcing a forehand long. That seemed to take the air out of Martin, who was also broken in the set's final game.
By the end of the fifth set, Agassi had taken a 0-40 lead on Martin's serve, setting up three match points. Martin was able to save the first with a monster serve, but he could not do much on the second, dumping a backhand into the net to give Agassi the title.
As the ball fell to the ground, Agassi jumped up and down and pumped his fist toward the fans. They had cheered earlier in the day when Venus and Serena Williams had won the women's doubles final, defeating Chanda Rubin and Sandrine Testud, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, but for Agassi they bellowed and stamped and screamed. Later, he was asked why he thought people here responded to him so well.
"They've watched me grow up," Agassi said. "It's hard not to care when you watch someone develop from a teenager who says and does a lot of the wrong things to a person who goes out and just appreciates the opportunities that are out there."