A fantastic summer of tennis that started in earnest with Andre Agassi crying tears of joy at the French Open ended Sunday with the 29-year-old American waving to the bellowing crowds at the National Tennis Center, the U.S. Open's silver trophy in his hand. The moment was a fitting cap for a renaissance season that has re-ignited interest in the sport and its personalities.
Martina Hingis's growing pains, Lindsay Davenport's laid-back dominance, Steffi Graf's majestic farewell, Pete Sampras's nearly perfect match on the grass of the All England Club, Todd Martin's wheezing near-triumph at the Davis Cup, Serena Williams's muscling her way into the spotlight and John McEnroe's grabbing it back will all endure as highlights as the players pack up to leave the U.S. Open.
"This is what you play for," Agassi said. "It means a lot to win where it really matters the most."
Agassi took back the No. 1 ranking from Sampras with Sunday's 6-4, 6-7 (7-5), 6-7 (7-2), 6-3, 6-2 finals win over a feisty Martin, whose own ranking leapt to a career-high No. 4. Agassi had been hoping to meet Sampras in the final and exact some retribution for the Wimbledon final Sampras took from him earlier this summer. But Sampras and two-time defending champion Patrick Rafter had to pull out of the tournament with injuries, opening the door for Martin, who had to survive two marathon five-set matches just to slip over the threshold.
Martin proved he was a more than an ample replacement in a different kind of all-American final. After suffering through so many health problems here that he gave the medical staff gifts before departing, Martin, 29, looked fresh and dangerous as he took a two-sets-to-one lead over Agassi. But Martin was never able to break Agassi's serve, and that inability cost him as Agassi finished out the match with nearly flawless tennis, making just five unforced errors in the final two sets.
"It was disappointing that somebody had to lose," said Agassi, who owns five Grand Slam titles. "Todd was playing so well; I was hanging on by a thread for most of the match. It was exciting tennis, and when it was all said and done, it was hard to believe."
The fans obviously agreed as the tournament's total attendance reached 584,490, a record for any Grand Slam. On television, the men's final earned a 7.1 rating, up 137 percent from last year. The women's final earned a 7.2, up 100 percent from last year, and provided a jubilant coming-out party for an ecstatic Williams, who trumped her older sister Venus to claim their family's first Grand Slam with a 6-3, 7-6 (7-4) win over Hingis.
Throughout the tournament, Serena, 17, stunned her opponents with pounding, relentless strokes and then charmed fans with her boastful charisma. Having already won the mixed doubles title here last year, Serena added to her treasure trove on Sunday by pairing with Venus, 19, to win the women's doubles championship. Afterward, she seemed stunned that she had collected $915,000 in winner's checks in two days.
"Woo-hoo," she cried. "That is really great. And I guess Uncle Sam is happy."
With her win, Serena moved to the No. 4 ranking. Venus, who advanced to the semifinals, reached No. 3. Davenport, who also lost in the semifinals, held onto the No. 2 spot and Hingis kept her grip on No. 1.
With Sampras moving to No. 3 on the men's side, three of the top four players on both the men's and women's tours are Americans, giving a renewed strength to the U.S. international teams. The Federation Cup squad, headed by Billie Jean King, will play Russia in the finals at Stanford next weekend. The Davis Cup team, headed by new captain McEnroe, will start play again next year.
"American women are just now starting to make a real step forward, an the American men are really kind of rallying and playing some of the best tennis that we've played in a long time," said Agassi, who announced here that he will be rejoining the Davis Cup team. Before he starts playing again, however, he intends to do a little celebrating of his U.S. Open win.
"I was going to drink out of this, but it's quite big," he said, pointing toward the trophy. Then he smiled. "I might get myself into trouble."
CAPTION: With victory over Todd Martin, right, in final of the U.S. Open, Andre Agassi completed a glorious summer run in which he reclaimed the No. 1 ranking.