Only undaunted Agassi can rally in the face of Federer
Las Vegan remains the No1 threat to the world No1
Wednesday September 14, 2005
If Roger Federer is secretly a tad miffed that Andre Agassi's inspired performance partly overshadowed his achievement in becoming the first player since Donald Budge to win Wimbledon and the US Open in consecutive years, he shouldn't be; Agassi is a phenomenon.
At 35, Agassi is the oldest man to compete in the final of a Grand Slam event since Ken Rosewall squared up to Jimmy Connors in the 1974 final at Flushing Meadows. A Grand Slam champion on eight occasions, the Las Vegan is a happily married father of two whose hair - or what remains of it - is flecked with grey. Yet age cannot wither him.
Consequently, as Federer's rivals sift through the wreckage of their own Grand Slam aspirations for a second successive summer, they should resist the temptation to draw comfort from Agassi's ability to unsettle the Swiss. No other player in the world could have stood toe-to-toe with Federer and traded blows to such breathtaking effect
That is not to discount the manifold skills of Marat Safin, Rafael Nadal and company. Rather it is to acknowledge the singularity of Agassi's gifts. Blessed with immaculate timing, lightning-fast hands and an ability to read the flight of the ball quicker than players half his age, Agassi is preternaturally comfortable taking his groundstrokes on the half-volley, a priceless asset when it comes to handling Federer's ferocious array of heavy artillery.
It is a measure of Federer's quality that even these attributes brought Agassi little success at first. The world No1 began the final in the imperious style that has become his trademark on the big occasions, sweeping the ball majestically into the corners. Lesser men than Agassi would have crumbled. Lleyton Hewitt endured a similar experience in the opening set of last year's final and never recovered.
But Agassi, whose tennis education was at the school of hard knocks known as the Sampras era, understands better than anyone what it takes to meet the game's greatest challenges. Upping his level from the superb to the sublime, the American quickly put the loss of the opening set behind him and went on to subject Federer to the sternest examination he has faced in a Grand Slam final.
In the process, Agassi staged a masterclass in how to disrupt the Swiss metronome's rhythm. From the latter stages of the first set to 6-6 in the third, the American dictated play from the baseline with strokes of almost inhuman power and precision, eliciting a series of errors from Federer. In particular, Agassi demonstrated that there is substance to the view - often articulated, rarely exemplified - that Federer is relatively vulnerable on the backhand side. Impressively, he did so by pursuing a strategy that few players have the courage or skills to emulate.
Conventional wisdom has it that the Federer forehand, one of the most potent weapons in the game, is to be avoided at all costs. Agassi, though, has rarely gone in for the conventional. Undaunted by the world No 1's formidable right side, the veteran boldly exchanged forehands, disturbing the champion's customary equilibrium and thereby establishing the perfect platform from which to launch a sustained assault on the backhand.
Had his body served him better, Agassi, who has been plagued by an inflamed sciatic nerve for most of this year, would have had a genuine chance of recording a third US Open win. Nonetheless, having survived three five-set matches on the punishing cement courts simply to reach the final, Agassi is hardly on his last legs.
Talk of retirement is premature, not least because Agassi, on his day, remains one of the few players capable of stopping Federer's relentless acquisition of the game's major prizes. Tennis needs him.
Since winning Wimbledon in 2003, Federer has collected six Slams. Unbeaten in his last 23 finals, he appears vulnerable only on clay, where he has twice stumbled to defeat this year, against Richard Gasquet and Nadal. On terra firma, only Safin, the prodigiously talented Muscovite who survived match points against Federer en route to winning this year's Australian Open, has shown himself capable of maintaining the level of tennis required to tame the Swiss over five sets.
Safin, though, is notoriously volatile, and - until his performances are governed by something more predictable than whether he has got out of bed on the right side - it is difficult to see him mounting a sustained challenge to Federer's dominance.
Of the other main pretenders, Andy Roddick will continue to stagnate until he addresses the need for greater tactical variety in his game, while it remains to be seen whether Nadal, who won a combined total of three matches at Wimbledon and the US Open, or Gasquet, a fourth-round loser in both tournaments, can bring their talents to bear on surfaces other than clay.
In the meantime, hopes of derailing the Federer Express in Grand Slam competition rest largely with a follicly-challenged father of two.
Like Federer, Agassi can do things on a tennis court that no else can. This is no time to quit.