Melbourne, Australia, is 11 hours ahead of London, 16 ahead of New
York City and 19 ahead of Los Angeles. At the Australian Open
time can seem elastic. On Sunday, the day after winning her
fourth consecutive major singles title to complete what she
called the Serena Slam, Serena Williams left for the U.S. on an
afternoon flight. She made it to the Super Bowl in San Diego in
time for kickoff.
For Andre Agassi, time simply moved backward. When Agassi left
the U.S. three weeks ago, he was a 32year-old who had looked
every bit his age in the year-end Masters Cup tournament, losing
both of his round-robin matches. Plus, he was still smarting from
his loss to Pete Sampras in the U.S. Open final in September. By
the time Agassi arrived in Australia, he was utterly rejuvenated,
and he proceeded to play as well as he ever had in
his--gulp!--17year career. On Sunday the Ageless Wonder put the
capstone on two weeks of dominating tennis by thrashing surprise
finalist Rainer Schuettler of Germany 6--2, 6--2, 6--1 and
hoisting the Australian Open trophy for the fourth time. Having
missed last year's tournament with a wrist injury, Agassi, the
champion in 2000 and 2001, has now won 21 straight matches on the
Rebound Ace surface at Melbourne Park. "I feel like I'm half
Australian," he said afterward.
Future tournament draw sheets will say otherwise, but Agassi is
no longer competing with other players on tour. He is playing
against history, trying to upgrade to a suite at the Inn of the
Great Ones. In Melbourne he increased his haul of Grand Slam
singles cups to eight, pushing past John McEnroe. While Agassi's
total is still well shy of Sampras's record 14, he gets special
consideration for having won each major at least once.
And who's to say he doesn't have more in him? A ruthless dictator
(of points, that is), Agassi has a singular ability to move his
opponents around the court. With both feet planted inside the
baseline, he takes the ball earlier than any other player, and he
is seldom off target. In Melbourne he averaged just 15.5 unforced
errors per match and often went several games without missing on
a shot. "You wait for him to get off his rhythm and hit a rough
patch, and it just doesn't happen," says Wayne Ferreira, a
straight-sets loser to Agassi in the semis. "I don't know if he's
ever hit the ball better, which is amazing given his age."
The oldest player in the top 100, Agassi believes that his legs
are the key to his longevity. They're fairly scrawny, somehow
paler than the rest of his body and as hairless as his glistening
head, but they enable him to cover the court better than he did a
decade ago and to inflict what he calls "body blows" to the
opposition. When Agassi works out in the weight room, he spends
70% of his time on lower-body exercises. As he runs up hills or
does footwork drills on the court, he remembers a piece of advice
given to him by Carl Lewis: When you get older, you don't have to
speed up at the end. Just don't slow down.
As for the body part that was once Agassi's weakness--his
head--it's now an asset. Marriage and fatherhood have made him
more efficient with his time. He avoids the on-court mental
lapses that characterized his "image is everything" days. The
realization that his time on tour is finite has given him
perspective and purpose. "I know what this means because I've
been there," he said on Sunday. "There's an urgency here, so I'm
over the moon with this."
Unfortunately for Agassi, his title was rendered anticlimactic by
a transcendent quarterfinal between Andy Roddick and Younes El
Aynaoui, a match that was less tennis contest than five hours of
dramaturgy. Roddick won 4--6, 7--6, 4--6, 6--4, 21--19, in the
longest Australian Open match in terms of games since the
tiebreak was instituted. It was not just the duration of the
match, however, that made it extraordinary. It was the level of
the tennis. Both players have percussive forehands and serves,
but they rallied from all coordinates of the court, unspooling
winner after breathtaking winner over the course of 484 points.
In 83 games they combined to commit only 86 unforced errors.
Hailed (fairly or not) as the future of U.S. men's tennis,
Roddick is a quintessentially American kid who wears a campy
visor over his mussed hair and is given to frequent use of the
word dude. El Aynaoui, a 31year-old Muslim from Morocco, is a
father of two who lives and trains in Barcelona and speaks six
languages. As a junior he attended Nick Bollettieri's tennis
academy in Florida but was so lightly regarded that he worked
part-time driving the academy's bus, and as a pro since 1990 he
has seldom toiled north of journeyman status. "I had heard he was
a cool guy," says Roddick, "but I don't think I'd exchanged word
one with him."
Long before the match ended, it was clear to both players that
they would be bracketed together in fans' memories for years.
They applauded each other's winners, traded how ridiculous is
this? glances at changeovers and, exhausted at 19all in the
fifth, they spontaneously handed their rackets to the ball kids
to rally with, providing some pitch-perfect comic relief. Two
games later, when El Aynaoui finally pushed a forehand volley
into the net on Roddick's second match point, the two men
embraced, and each raised the other's arm in triumph. The more
than 14,000 fans who had stayed long past midnight gave a
three-minute standing ovation. Fatigued and bothered by
tendinitis in his right wrist, Roddick had little left for
Schuettler in the semis, but he had come of age in the Antipodes.
"I think we saw," says Agassi, "that Andy is going to be a
The Williams sisters, of course, are already champions. Like the
bushfires that raged throughout Australia last week and left the
Melbourne sky hazy, Venus and Serena blazed through the draw. For
the fourth consecutive Grand Slam event the women's final was a
Williams family affair. Throughout the tournament there was
plenty of shabby talk about the need for regime change, as it
were, in the women's game. But the gulf that divides the sisters
from all the other players is as wide as ever, and there's little
indication that their two-woman rule will be overthrown soon.
Venus had played sparingly since the U.S. Open, taking time off
to open her interior design business, V Starr Interiors. Unlike
Serena, she came to Melbourne without having played a tune-up
event. So what happened? Venus bulldozed her way to the final
without dropping a set; her matches lasted an average of 67
minutes. Serena, however, was tested in the semifinals by
Belgium's Kim Clijsters, whose power and consistency make her the
leading candidate to unseat the Williamses. Unable to find the
court with her shots and slowed by blisters on her right foot,
Serena fell behind 1--5 in the third set. "I knew that if I held,
broke, held and then broke again, it would be 5--5," she said
later, without a trace of irony. She did exactly that, aided by
Clijsters, who did a convincing impersonation of Jana Novotna. By
5--5 it was clear that Clijsters was cowed, and Serena closed out
the match by winning the next two games.
The sisters' dominance is perhaps most vivid in the doubles draw,
which they usually enter on a lark, much as NBA players do the
All-Star slam-dunk contest. As a team the Williamses are
tactically inept, often miscommunicate and, relishing their time
on the same side of the net, hemorrhage giggles. But their
combination of power and athleticism is simply insurmountable,
and they romp over teams that play together week in, week out.
Last Friday, Williams-Williams won the Australian Open doubles
title over Argentina's Paola Suarez and Spain's Virginia Ruano
Pascual. At the trophy presentation Suarez uttered what might as
well be the WTA players' new mantra: "Next year I hope Venus and
Serena don't play, so we can win the tournament."
Despite the sisters' similar games ("In terms of power and ball
striking they're pretty much equal," says Mark Hlawaty, the
hitting partner they shared last week), Serena has a superior
quotient of nasty. "Venus is an intellectual thinker," says their
mother, Oracene Price. "Serena is a power grabber." Or as their
soothsaying father, Richard, memorably put it years ago, "Serena
is meaner." This, as much as anything, was the difference in
Saturday's final, in which Little Sis beat Big Sis for the fifth
straight time. The two of them had spent the morning watching
Simpsons reruns in the two-bedroom suite they shared at the Crown
Casino Hotel. Then they warmed up together. But once the match
started, Serena was ferocious. She argued line calls, attacked
Venus's shaky forehand, summoned her alpha game when it mattered
most and won a well-played--if typically hollow-feeling--match
7--6, 3--6, 6--4.
Tennis historians can debate whether the Serena Slam is
commensurate with the Grand Slam, since Serena didn't win her
quartet of titles in a single calendar year. Regardless, winning
four straight majors--played in four seasons on four surfaces--is
a stellar achievement. Yet when it was over, Serena was racked by
ambivalence, her joy dampened by the fact that Venus was the
loser yet again. "I really wish [Venus] could have pulled through
today," Serena said three hours after the match, as she wolfed
down an ice-cream cone and clutched a bag of potato chips in the
players' cafeteria. "Each time I play her, more and more I'm
like, This is an opponent as opposed to my sister. When I come
off the court, it goes back to, That's my sister I love with all
Agassi's celebration, too, was muted for family reasons. When
you're only months away from 33 and your wife is waiting
patiently to return to the hotel, you consider more decorous ways
to revel than by jumping into the Yarra River, as Agassi did in
years past. Besides, by the time he had polished off Schuettler,
posed with the trophy and given his interviews, it was close to
the bedtime of his 15month-old son, Jaden Gil. On his way to a
waiting courtesy car Agassi walked through the catacombs of Rod
Laver Arena, whose corridors are adorned with photos of past
winners in Melbourne. Agassi glanced quickly as he cruised by the
images of players such as Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe, Jimmy
Connors and Ivan Lendl. On those sturdy legs he moved briskly and
purposefully, offering no sign of slowing down.
COLOR PHOTO: MIKE FIALA/AP [T of C] SPLIT SETS Kim Clijsters will have to stretch her game after losing a three-setter to Serena Williams in the Australian Open semifinals (page 60).
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID CALLOW (SERENA) FAMILIAR STORIES Serena Williams called on her mean streak to conquer sister Venus yet again, while Agassi summoned his usual focus to trounce Schuettler.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN [See caption above]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: BOB MARTIN MAYBE NEXT YEAR Both Clijsters (below) and Roddick made big noise at Melbourne Park before flaming out in the semifinals.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB MARTIN AUSTRALIAN OPEN SISTER SLEDGEHAMMER Serena Williams (bottom) rushed to club a sharply angled shot from Venus in the final on Saturday.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN WIZARD OF OZ Agassi feels at home in Australia, where he has won half of his eight Grand Slam singles titles.
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Unfortunately for Agassi, his title was rendered anticlimactic by
a transcendent quarterfinal between Roddick and El Aynaoui.