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Écrit par Jerome   
18-09-2006
By Paul Malone

Andre Agassi says New York is his kind of town, but Australian tennis fans have long felt a kinship with Agassi because Melbourne is the place where he won half of his eight Grand Slam titles.

It was not always that way. Agassi was the last great player in tennis to be convinced that it was worth his while to play the Australian Open, clearly the runt of the Grand Slam litter until its 1983 rejuvenation and its 1988 rebirth with the construction of Melbourne's National Tennis Centre.

He was not the fan favorite when he won his first Australian Open, in 1995, at his first attempt, three years after he had won Wimbledon in his Grand Slam breakthrough.

Women loved his pirate look of the time and young Australians rallied to his charisma and flamboyant game. But it was the year that runner-up Pete Sampras won his quarter-final against Jim Courier by serving aces through his tears after a spectator urged Sampras to win it for his coach Tim Gullikson, who had been diagnosed with brain cancer, and there was room for only sentimental favorite.

Over the years, Agassi told we Australians what we wanted to hear, that the country was one of his favourite places to play tennis. Just another case of Agassi spreading sweetness and light as he travelled around the world in his later years as an unofficial international tennis emmisary.

One year in Melbourne, he remarked that what with his son Jaden's passion for "the Wiggles" and the calm coaching of Darren Cahill, part of Team Agassi for its last four years, it felt like he was surrounded by Australians. Agassi said on his last few visits that he wished he had played earlier at the Australian Open, which he would win in 1995, 2000, 2001 and 2003 -- more than any man in the Open era.

The slow, reliable, higher bounce of Rebound Ace and the hot temperatures gave the tennis magician a sense of certainty in his hitting zone and also gave him full value for his annual herculean December training sessions in Las Vegas with conditioner Gil Reyes.

By winning in three consecutive Melbourne appearances in 2000-03 – he could not play in 2002 because of a hand injury -- Agassi always arrived in Melbourne fitter than the rest from driving his legs up and down a hill near his home in Las Vegas. Other players less committed to a flying start to the new tennis year floundered in his wake.

When he beat a cramping Pat Rafter, later to be voted Australian of the Year for his sportsmanship and destined never to win his national championship, in a 2001 Melbourne Park semi-final, it was not held against him. The previous year Agassi had beaten Sampras in a semi-final in one of the Australian Open's greatest matches, one of those precious contests which has made a night in front of television to watch a showcase night match a common theme of an Australian's sports-mad summer.

Agassi has seemingly played in more of those memorable Melbourne Park matches than anyone else, which partly explains his enduring popularity in our country. Agassi's last match in Australia was in a 2005 quarter-final won in straight sets by Roger Federer and he went down, typically, with nothing less in his arsenal despite a straight-sets margin, saying his goodbyes, as became his custom, just in case he wasn't able to come back.

Cahill savored in New York the memory of the 2003 Australian Open win as being the best tennis he played during their association. "He may have played better over the time he was with Brad Gilbert, but Andre was on autopilot that year," Cahill, a 1988 US Open semi-finalist, said. "We'd always play four games on every off-day to finish off 30 or 40 minutes of practice. There were eight off-days counting the one before the start of the tournament. I'm normally good to win a serve-volley game every day, lose 3-1 maybe, but during that Australian Open I was down 32-0. "It was that he knew the conditions, knew the balls, knew the opponents and knew he was going to be ready for anything."

- Paul Malone is tennis writer for Brisbane's Courier-Mail newspaper and covered his first Australian Open in 1987.
 
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