FROM THE ARCHIVES - 1999 FRENCH OPEN FINALS June 7th, 1999: John O'Sullivan reports from Paris on the French Open finals where Andre Agassi stunned Andrei Medvedev after being two sets down and Steffi Graf beat 18-year-old Martina Hingis in a tempestuous duel.
JOHN McENROE'S silence spoke volumes. Commentating for NBC, he could offer no words to describe the pictures that recorded the mass hysteria which greeted Andre Agassi's 1-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Andrei Medvedev yesterday. Roland Garros stood in noisy acclamation of a staggering comeback that allowed the 29-year-old Agassi to muscle into a previously select group of four.
It now numbers five as the Las Vegas native joined Donald Budge, Fred Perry, Roy Emerson and Rod Laver as the only men in the history of tennis to win the four Grand Slam tournaments. How appropriate therefore that it was the Australian Laver who handed Agassi the Coupe des Mousquetaires.
Agassi's tears that greeted Medvedev's long looping forehand return which drifted over the baseline on the American's fourth championship point were equally appropriate. Emotionally and physically drained, even he could offer no explanation of how he managed to transform a two-sets-to-love deficit into one of the great recoveries.
"I don't know. I'm blessed. I never dreamt that I would see this day," he said. "That was certainly the greatest feeling that I have ever had on a tennis court.
"Assigned a place among the great players of the game is unbelievable. I can't get my head around it."
Agassi's performance was a remarkable on-court metamorphosis. It was almost a lemming-like trait as Agassi inextricably hurtled to the precipice of defeat, offering up the first two sets with minimum resistance. The greater his discomfort, the more he speeded up between points. Soon the errors became a blur and his dreams threatened to crumble into the red dust of Roland Garros.
Twice a losing finalist, Agassi appeared handicapped by an all-consuming desperation to win that manifested itself in manic nervous tension. He willed balls out, periodically checked the red clay for marks he hoped would provide an overrule. He bore the hunted expression of a fugitive who gradually realises that there might be no escape.
In mitigation, Medvedev produced some scintillating tennis, serving superbly - he would serve 23 aces in total, a phenomenal number on clay - and jumped all over the Agassi delivery, particularly his second serve. He crushed one double-handed backhand after another past the bemused American and completely dominated the baseline exchanges. The 24-year-old Ukrainian did not lose a point on his first serve in those opening sets.
Of that period, Medvedev admitted: "He wasn't hurting me with his groundstrokes, he was struggling but in the third set that changed."
The French Open final seemed destined to provide a fanfare to the rehabilitation of Medvedev. Once ranked four in the world, he had tumbled to 100th in the world, largely through poor attitude.
The rekindling of his relationship with the tennis player Anke Huber, and with it a more positive outlook on life, brought the articulate and affable Ukrainian to the brink of Grand Slam success. His magnanimity in defeat will provide one of the abiding memories of the French Open. "I lost to a great player today. I wouldn't say that it was an honour to lose, but it is an honour to stand beside him now after what he has achieved."
In danger of a thrashing, Agassi scrambled for a new strategy and hit upon trying to apply pressure by coming to the net more often. The statistics would have offered him little succour. Agassi had only once ever come back from two sets down in a Grand Slam, overhauling Jim Courier at the 1996 Australian Open. He also held a career 15-16 five-set record.
But Medvedev harboured skeletons too, having twice previously lost a two-sets-to-love lead in a Grand Slam.
Agassi toughed it out in the third set, gradually establishing a more fluent rhythm to his groundstrokes, and his tenacity was rewarded with a break in the 10th game to give him the set.
The momentum of the match had shifted, exemplified by the American racing to a 3-0 lead in the fourth set.
Agassi's return of serve suddenly earned its more familiar withering pace, and he took the set 6-3 in 40 minutes.
Perhaps the crucial moment in the fifth set occurred when Agassi survived a break point in the second game. It was this moment that Medvedev admitted would linger in his memory.
"It's the one I'll remember. I went for a strange shot that wouldn't have hurt him even if it went in. I made a mistake."
The Ukrainian, already a break down from game five, saved three championship points in the eighth; but in the following game three service winners from 15-15 handed Agassi the crowning moment of his career.
Graf tames Hingis's tantrums and goes out in style
SUPERLATIVES for once are neither trite nor glib. Steffi Graf's performance in winning a sixth French Open at Roland Garros was magnificent, a tribute to her mental and physical prowess in a contest that offered pure theatre.
In the process she became the first player to beat the number one, two and three ranked players in a tournament in the Open era. Graf tried to articulate her feelings before confirming that this would be her last visit to Roland Garros.
"This is the best moment of my career. The crowd was unbelievable. I have never known anything like it. This is definitely the last time I will play here, without a doubt. You know this memory should be the way it is. This was my last French Open."
Disputed calls, a code violation, haute couture readjustment, an underarm serve at match point and tears aplenty guarantee a never-to-be-forgotten final. The sideshows should not, but will, detract from the quality of tennis on a day when a gusting wind offered a ready excuse for sub-standard fare. Graf's remarkable display, taking the tie 4-6, 7-5, 6-2, inspired Martina Hingis to admit: "I just didn't know what to do."
Already assured of a place in the pantheon of the sport - 22 Grand Slam titles needs no elaboration - the lustre of previous achievements was embellished further by her latest success. Principally because of the manner in which she refused to buckle against world number one Hingis.
Trailing by a set, 5-4 and 15-0 on the Hingis serve, Graf demonstrated nerves of high-tensile steel, patience, precision and remarkable composure excavating her from a perilous predicament. In taking the set 7-5 she wrested the momentum from Hingis, not least by the excellence of her tennis. In taking the third set 6-2, she simply capitalised on the emotional breakdown of her opponent.
It was a sobering sight to watch a grief-stricken Hingis in floods of tears, obviously struggling to comprehend the venom and vitriol poured on her by a packed gallery.
Her after-match admission summed up her distress: "If my mother wasn't there I wouldn't have gone back (out on court for the presentation). Come on, would you go out there if everyone boos you out?"
She facilitated the displeasure of the 16,000 crowd with a couple of tantrums, not least with the bizarre manner in which she disputed a call while leading by a set and 2-0. She became embroiled in an argument she would never win and then committed the ultimate sin by walking to the other side of the net, a forbidden gesture.
Her silly persistence cost her a penalty point but for a crowd that already favoured Graf it was the cue for open hostility. A warning for breaking her racquet by hammering it off the ground, leaving the court to change her top and remove her bandanna at the end of the second set and another petulant dispute stoked the fires of discontent of what ultimately became a boorish mob whose vilification of an 18-year-old was pathetic to witness.
Sure Hingis could have conducted herself in a more detached fashion but at 18 she possesses the immaturity of most teenagers, blighted with a touch of arrogance.
Still she did not deserve the unbridled baiting. What state of mind forces the number one player in the world to serve underarm at match point? No matter how many Grand Slams Hingis adds to her current total of five, the stigma of that action will stay with her for the rest of her life.
That she repeated it again, at match point this time, without success, underlined her mental breakdown. The Swiss girl offered: "I just couldn't serve. I thought, well maybe down under it's easier."
Graf to her credit did not condemn her young opponent for what in tennis terms would be a slight: "I thought it was a hell of a serve," she laughed.
"I mean just to do it for the first time, it was very good. I had the feeling that the crowd felt it was an insult. I did at that moment because she did it extremely well. Obviously it shook things up a bit and she won the point. It was a good decision from her point."
Graf was gracious in the words of consolation she offered Hingis and one suspects they were genuine even if the Swiss girl struggled to absorb anything in her distraught state. Only once, and this during the match, did Graf lose patience with the increasing number of charades, striding to the net and interrupting another exchange between Hingis and the umpire. Exasperated she declared: "Are we playing tennis or just talking a little bit."
She provided the emphatic answer, through deeds, within the confines of Court Central. The French Open women's final should be remembered as one of the great finals, its memory honouring Graf as a truly great champion.
© 2008 The Irish Times