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Last Ace Wins Pot for Agassi : Tennis: He’s on top down under with a victory over Sampras in Australian final.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The changes in Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras at the Australian Open were as much revolutionary as evolutionary.

Circumstances forced the top two tennis players in the world to evolve in order to succeed.

Agassi shaved his head, streamlined his life and rededicated himself to his profession. No one knew if it was safe to take the showman seriously, but critics became believers after watching his emphatic march through this tournament. In his first time here, he won the year’s first Grand Slam event today over Sampras, 4-6, 6-1, 7-6 (8-6) 6-4.

Agassi has now won two Grand Slam events in a row, having defeated Sampras at the U.S. Open in September, which perhaps marked the beginning of his new approach to a game that in the past had been more fun than a serious undertaking.

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Sampras, the defending champion, has shown a grit and resonance in his game that before had seemed too effortless and too formulaic. His perseverance through two five-set matches and today’s 2-hour 36-minute duel in the sun has made it clear that his maturation as both a player and a person is complete.

Agassi had never wanted to come to the Australian Open, saying it was too far from home. Now, in his new serious mode, where Grand Slam events are a priority, his victory here may well signal a new era.

After the match, Agassi was gracious when addressing the crowd on center court at the National Tennis Center. He referred to Sampras’ emotional battle after the illness of his coach, Tim Gullikson.

‘We’ve seen a lot of great champions come and go,” Agassi said. “I’d have to say what I witnessed Pete do over the last couple of weeks, what he’s shown on the court and off the court, is absolutely inspiring. We can all learn from it. I think he’s shown why he’s No. 1 in the world.”

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Sampras, still raw with emotion from both the match and the week, was likewise gracious.

“He was just too good for everyone,” Sampras said of Agassi. “He deserves all the success he’s gotten. To my coach, who’s back home, I just want to let him know that I’m thinking about him, I wish he was here and I’ve been praying for him the last couple of weeks.”

Sampras fought back tears while speaking at center court.

“It was kind of a strange match,” Agassi said. “You could never tell who had the momentum. I felt like, when you thought you had it, you didn’t.”

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Agassi’s transformation has been orchestrated by Brad Gilbert, who has coached Agassi from below the top 20 to No. 2 in the world. Before the final, Agassi had not lost a set in the tournament.

“In a sense the two weeks don’t mean anything, because you have to come out and win,” Agassi said. “But I think I’ve been playing well. I got over a big hump with the U.S. Open victory. I had to dig down to beat seeded players. That helped. This was a big accomplishment here.

“My game has gone to another level.”

Said Gilbert: “He’s played well the whole tournament. He came out and did what he wanted. He’s improved a lot since the U.S. Open. Pete served unbelievably. I thought that whoever won the tiebreaker would take control of the match.”

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Agassi had to fight back to win the tiebreaker in the third set, and it seemed to deflate Sampras.

Sampras served well with 28 aces, 12 in the last set, but Agassi’s return of serve and pace on his ground strokes took a toll.

And it was Agassi who won the title with an ace, his 10th, on match point.

In the first set, Sampras got into trouble with two double faults in the seventh game. But as he had all day, Sampras came up with huge serves to dig out. Sampras saved three break points in the ninth game and then came back to break Agassi to win the first set.

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Sampras held only one service game in the second set. He won only two points in the first three games.

Sampras wrested control in the third game of the third set and broke Agassi. But Agassi won the tiebreaker, fighting off two set points. Then he broke Sampras at 4-4 in the fourth set and held serve for the title.


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