People love prodigal sons. Then again, they also have a place in their hearts for the dutiful son who suddenly has his day to shine. So, U.S. Open fans hardly knew whether to cheer louder Sunday for Andre Agassi, the flamboyant wanderer in the wilderness, or self-effacing Todd Martin, the dedicated "nicest guy in tennis" who might win his first Grand Slam title.

Before long, however, the packed house at Arthur Ashe Stadium decided not to express a preference. It would have seemed unjust. Instead, they simply chose to scream for 203 minutes as both of the 29-year-old Americans played one of the best five-set championships in recent times.

Agassi finally won for exactly the proper reason: his fanatical fitness regimen--his complete re-dedication to the sport he once neglected--paid off. In the final two sets, he simply exhausted Martin and won convincingly.

"Win or lose, it was a privilege and an honor to play in that match," said Agassi, the reformed fashion victim who once acted as though the honor and privilege belonged to those who got to watch his gifted play. That is, when he decided to show up as advertised. Or didn't tank an early match on a hot day so he could head home to Las Vegas and a big meal. How men change.

Now, to hear him, you'd think he was Andre Old School. But that's always how it works in these perplexing prodigal parables. People fall all over themselves to kill the fatted calf for the guy who once drove them nuts. They even cheer when he beats the fellow--such as Martin--who always exemplified exactly the virtues that Agassi has adopted in the last two years.

"I don't know if you ever make up for lost opportunities. All you can do is not regret the past," said Agassi after his 6-4, 6-7 (7-5), 6-7 (7-2), 6-3, 6-2 win for his fifth Grand Slam title. "What I missed out on, I can never get back. But it's nice to get another shot at it. . . . I have to make the most of the last few."

At times in his career, Agassi has seemed like the least self-aware or reflective of people. So, perhaps, we get another nice lesson on being slow to judge. Certainly the fans of New York love the finished product.

"They've watched me grow up," said Agassi, who bowed to all four sides of the stadium at the finish. "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 there and just appreciates the opportunities that are out there."

All in all, nobody at this U.S. Open seems more nonplussed by the changes in Agassi than Agassi, who just two years ago had fallen to No. 141, was considered a totally washed-up ex-star and had to play the Challenger's Circuit.

"Somebody showed me a picture recently and asked me who it was," said Agassi. "I looked at it and said, 'Wow, she's cute.' . . . And then all of the sudden, I went, 'Wow, that was me' " at 16 years old. . . . "It's been a long road for me."

And where has the end of that road arrived? Agassi says he's reached a point where, finally, he can take the court with complete acceptance beforehand of any outcome. Why? Because he knows he's worked as hard as he can. So, defeat doesn't scare him, because guilt and regret don't go along with it.

"There's dignity in maintaining a standard of professionalism and work ethic in what you do," said Agassi. "I've been on the other side of that. So I can say that I do walk off the court now [feeling] mighty proud."

The man behind Agassi's new attitude is coach Brad Gilbert. "Andre can't look back now at what might have been," said Gilbert. "He's still got a solid two- or three-year window of opportunity to change the way he's viewed [in history]. He came here having won all the Glam Slam events once. Now, maybe he's on the way to winning them all twice."

Only Rod Laver and Don Budge did that. If Agassi matched them, the tennis world would faint. But so, probably, would Agassi.

As is customary on these occasions, the person in the tale who has never been intemperate, self-indulgent or a wild exhibitionist, gets a patronizing pat on the head at the end of the story. Part of the reason, perhaps, is that we assume lifelong moderation isn't so much a virtue as a temperment with which you're born.

"[Todd] played so well, I felt I was hanging by a thread for much of the match," Agassi said. ". . . It's hard to go out and play your best in a slam unless you've been there quite a few times. But he did it."

Naturally, the often-injured, much-liked Martin deflected the praise. "I was more than a tad short," said the 6-foot-6 Martin, who won tiebreakers in the second and third sets to threaten an enormous upset.

At that moment, how did Martin feel? After all, his two weeks here have been a saga. In the first round, he was forced to five sets by an obscure qualifier. In the fourth round, he was down two sets, then also trailed 4-1 in the fifth, yet came back to win the most thrilling match of the entire Open. For a week, Martin was so sick from a stomach virus that, for one match, he almost didn't post. He finally got healthy just in time to lose.

"After I won the third set, I felt I had no chance to lose. It was my match," Martin said with a straight face. Reporters scratched their heads. Isn't that a brash Agassi line? After a pause, Martin burst out laughing. "Come on," he said, then dropped his head forward on the table.

"Of course, I knew I could still lose. But I also thought I could win," said Martin. "But he just put relentless pressure on me. By the forth set, I lost my legs a little bit. That's when the serve starts to go."

That, however, isn't what surprised Martin most. Where was the careless Agassi? The distracted, flighty, excitable Agassi who used to appear at times in a crisis? Martin, one of tennis's best strategists, had counted on that Agassi. But he never showed up.

"Every game he seemed to be right there--totally focused," Martin said. "That's quite an accomplishment in a Grand Slam."

Yes, we're talking about Agassi, Chairman Airhead. Goodbye, Mr. Image Is Everything. Nice knowing you. You were a kick. But the act got old. Time to close that show. We like this guy better. Let him stick around.