The circle has not been completed -- not with one match left between Andre Agassi and his fourth Australian Open title and its fascinating implications -- but the difference from a year ago is striking.
Then: hurting. Now: hurting opponents.
Then: question mark. Now: exclamation point.
The divide between then and now has never seemed as vast as it did Thursday, when the second-seeded Agassi defeated 31-year-old Wayne Ferreira of South Africa, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3, in 1 hour 28 minutes in the semifinals of the Australian Open. Especially when you consider how much doubt was raised about Agassi's competitive future when he pulled out of this event last year on the first day because of an injured right wrist.
This will be Agassi's 14th appearance in a Grand Slam final (he has won seven) and his opponent will be either No. 9 Andy Roddick or Rainer Schuettler of Germany, who played early today. That match had not been completed at press time.
Agassi, 32, has not lost a match at the Australian Open since a fourth-round defeat against Vince Spadea in 1999.
Ferreira may not be the most independent judge -- after all, he was down a set and a service break within 36 minutes and had his serve broken six times overall -- but he didn't give Roddick or Schuettler much of a chance against Agassi.
"He played great," Ferreira said. "If he plays like that, I mean, you can see his results through the whole tournament. No one's even come close to having a chance. I didn't have a chance today.
"If he plays like that Sunday, Andy or Rainer, I don't think either of them can have a chance. I mean, I think if anyone does, Andy will, just because he's got a huge serve and he's got some power, but I still don't think he's got a chance."
Agassi was giddy afterward. He gets that sort of look when he hits a rarefied groove, such as after he beat Lleyton Hewitt in the semifinals of the U.S. Open last year. In the on-court interview with John McEnroe on Thursday, he was reveling in the moment like a kid, and admitted after prodding that he might be better than ever.
"I'm stronger, I'm faster and I have 17 years of experience," he said. "So I guess my vote is yes."
Ferreira, who has never defeated Agassi, once felt that the Agassi forehand was the shot to try to pick on. But he said Agassi hit his forehand better than in any of their 10 other matches. Agassi's biggest crisis was fighting off a break point in the second game, and from then on he had little trouble.
"You always go out there expecting a battle, and today was no different," he said. "I'm always surprised when I go in three sets with two breaks each set. It's not easy to do. A lot of things have to go right."
After a long day's night of tennis -- the five-hour match between Roddick and Younes El Aynaoui -- a very brief night had almost a calming impact. It was practically a stress-free evening for the Agassi camp -- coach Darren Cahill, trainer Gil Reyes and wife Steffi Graf. He mixed power and placement, and one sharply hit, angled winner in the first set drew an admiring "good shot" from someone who sounded suspiciously like Graf.
One more victory and it will be time for the Agassi camp to make good on some bets. Agassi said Cahill will have to shave his head, Reyes is required to completely down an Agassi-mixed margarita and, most prominently, Graf must join him on the court at the French Open to play mixed doubles.
"We always sort of talk about things," Agassi said. "If we are in the trenches together, then we're in the trenches. We've got to all pay the price, so whatever that might mean, any given week.... I've spent two weeks down here with a lot on the line every day. We need everybody to have something on the line."
It was Cahill who thought of the mixed doubles entry. Graf retired in 1999 after winning 22 Grand Slam singles titles, the final one at the French Open that year. She is, Agassi said, ready to go along with the program. "She's a team player."
One member of the family is off the hook, at least for the moment. Agassi was asked what his son, toddler Jaden Gil, had to do if there was another Australian Open crown in the family.
"We haven't discussed that one," Agassi said. "I've shaved his head three times. It's definitely not going to be that."