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Agassi picks up key to exclusive club

By Steve Keating

PARIS (Reuters) - After a small handshake and a big hug from Rod Laver, Andre Agassi was handed the key to the most exclusive club in tennis Sunday, lifting the Coupe des Mousquetaires high into the blue Parisian sky.

With his gritty 1-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 comeback victory over a determined Andrei Medvedev, Agassi won the French Open, completing his collection of Grand Slam titles and achieving one of the toughest feats in sport.

The 29-year-old American's victory unlocked the door to a fraternity that includes just five players and had not welcomed a new member in more than 30 years.

Balding and dressed in traditional tennis whites, today's Agassi looked much more like a person ready to join one of the world's most prestigious clubs than the renegade teen-ager with scraggly bleach blond hair and garish attire, who failed twice in French finals in 1990 and 1991.

Agassi, who won Wimbledon in 1992, the U.S. Open in 1994 and the Australian in 1995, joins Fred Perry, Don Budge, Roy Emerson and Laver as the only men to pull off one of sport's more difficult feats.

But even among the other tennis immortals, Agassi's accomplishment holds special distinction as the first player to win on four different surfaces.

``To be assigned a place among the game's greatest players is an honor I get to live with the rest of my life,'' said Agassi. ``It's not possible to explain what was going through my mind.

``The accomplishment of winning every Slam speaks for itself, then there's the importance of accomplishing it on clay.

``There was being ranked 140 a couple of years ago and people believing that if I just tried hard enough some good things were still waiting for me.

``There are so many reasons I have to be overwhelmed at this particular moment.''

Medvedev, who also made a bit of Grand Slam history by becoming the lowest ranked player at number 100 to reach the French final, says Agassi can now make the argument that he, and not Pete Sampras, is the greatest player of his generation.

Certainly Agassi could present a strong case.

For many of his contemporaries, including Sampras, considered by many to be the greatest player ever to pick up a racket, the French Open remains an obsession.

Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg recently retired without realizing their Grand Slam dreams because of their failure to come to grips with the Paris clay.

Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Guillermo Vilas, Arthur Ashe, Mats Wilander, John Newcombe and Ken Rosewall, tennis legends all, finished their remarkable careers without winning all four Grand Slam tournaments.

``He has a right to say now that he's a greater player than, let's say, Pete by winning all four Grand Slams,'' said Medvedev. ``It's an argument that he can make.''

Agassi's place among the tennis legends is even more remarkable considering that just two years ago he looked more at home among the game's has-beens.

His ranking having slumped to 141 the Las Vegas showman was reduced to playing in Challenger tournaments as he began the long road back.

``I had other things going on in my life that were very important to me,'' said the former world number one. ``I wasn't putting the same intensity, focus or work into my tennis. It's not something I'm proud of.

``It got to a point where I was just embarrassed to be on the court. It got to the point where -- was I going to get back and continue to play or was I going to stop?''

Last season, a rejuvenated Agassi disproved his many doubters, making the biggest one season jump in the history of the ATP Tour rankings, going from 121 back into the top 10.

Battered physically and emotionally, Agassi's presence at Roland Garros was in doubt right up to the opening day.

Just weeks earlier, the 13th seed was forced to pull out of the Monte Carlo Open with a nagging shoulder injury.

But Agassi's recent split with movie star Brooke Shields which ended in him filing for divorce in April, also seems to have unburdened the American, allowing him to focus all his energy on his career.

``He put a lot of ghosts to rest today,'' said Agassi's long time coach and friend Brad Gilbert. ``A lot of people said Andre can't win from two sets down, he can't win the big one, he can't win a five-set match, he can't win on clay.

``There were a lot of demons put to rest. I think sometimes when things are down you need tennis more than you think you do. Tennis was there for him.

``Sometimes when everything is right you don't want it as much. Then sometimes when you're down you need it more.''


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