Agassi's win still special for all, 20 years on

Becker, Chang and Smith look back at Agassi's 1999 RG triumph.

 - Reem Abulleil

Twenty years ago today, Andre Agassi ended a four-and-half-year title drought at the majors and completed the career Grand Slam by lifting the Coupe des Mousquetaires in Paris.

Contesting a Roland-Garros final for the first time in eight years, a 29-year-old Agassi was facing Ukrainian Andrei Medvedev, who had considered quitting tennis just two months earlier at age 24.

“I remember talking to him [Medvedev] about why he shouldn’t do that. I remember coaching him. We were at a dinner one night, and I was telling him, ‘Listen man, this is what you do well, this is what you got to stick to’,” Agassi recalled in a film he made with Lavazza a couple of years ago.

Agassi had reached, and lost, two Roland-Garros finals: in 1990 to Ecuadorian lefty Andres Gomez, and 1991 to his fellow American Jim Courier.

By the time he had finally made his way back to the championship match in Paris, Agassi had won each of the three other Grand Slam singles titles, with only Roland-Garros missing from his set.

“It’s like one of my greatest memories ever as a coach because the entire tournament was kind of fairytale run. I had to do my greatest coaching just to get him here because he had a bad shoulder,” Brad Gilbert, Agassi’s coach at the time, remembers of that title run in Paris.

“We didn’t really get here until two days before the tournament and he hadn’t hit. It was just something you didn’t expect.”

Bumpy road

Agassi’s route was far from smooth. Seeded 13 in the draw, he battled through four sets against Franco Squillari in his opener, climbed back from two-sets-to-one down against Arnaud Clement in the second, and also had four-setters against Carlos Moya in the fourth round and Dominik Hrbaty in the semis.

Standing between him and the Roland-Garros crown was Medvedev.

“Big strong guy, about 6’5”, he also could control his ball very well and he moved good for a big guy, so I knew I would have to play offensive, I knew I would have to try to control, but I also knew that he was better than probably people realised,” said Agassi of the Ukrainian, who led two-sets-love before his opponent launched a comeback in the rain-interrupted final.

“I went into the match very nervous. The night before very nervous. And the nerves made me come out very slow. So I went out with a game plan to be aggressive but if you’re feet aren’t moving right on the red clay, it’s very difficult to do.

“The ball looked fast, everything was happening so quick. To turn this moment around, two-sets-to-love down, to turn it around and fight my way back to a fifth set and then to play the tennis I was playing. I got to say it was the best moment I had on a tennis court, as far as an accomplishment goes. And the feeling was me living the rest of my life truly believing I wouldn’t have another regret as it relates to my career.”

Gilbert saw it as “one of the great days ever, to see a French crowd, lift an American”.

Class all around

Medvedev, a former world No.4 who was ranked 100 at the time, was gracious in defeat.

“It’s an honour to stay here with him, and knowing that I had the chance of getting close to beating him, that’s an honour for me. But I want to congratulate you from the bottom of my heart,” the then 24-year-old said during the trophy ceremony. Agassi walked over and hugged him.

Holding back tears, the American thanked the crowd for their support.

“I always wondered what it was like to hold this up in front of you people. You’ve supported me for over decade and I’ve had many successes and many disappointments and to share this with you is my way of saying thank you for everything you’ve given me in my career,” said Agassi, who would go on to win four more majors – none of which came at Roland-Garros.

Legends pay tribute to Andre

Two decades later, legends of the sport still remember that crowning moment for Agassi in Paris.

“I remember him being down two-sets-to-love. I always thought that he should have won the French earlier, because of his game, was comfortable on clay, but it took him a while to get used to everything I guess. I remember it being a long match and him coming back and winning it,” Boris Becker told on Wednesday.

Agassi was just the fifth man in history, and the first in the Open Era, to complete a career Grand Slam, a feat that was later pulled off by Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

“Winning the career Grand Slam is always an unbelievable achievement, it’s one of the most difficult things to do. Probably, if you don’t complete it, something is missing, if you can – I’ve never completed it, but I’ve never reached a Roland-Garros final either. But for him it was the right thing at the right time,” Becker said of Agassi.

Michael Chang, who this year celebrates the 30-year-anniversary of his own triumph at Roland-Garros, had lost in the first round to Yevgeny Kafelnikov in that 1999 tournament in Paris.

“It’s obviously a huge accomplishment for Andre. He’s had such a great career and I think for him to finally win here, on a surface where he’s done so well, I think it was a great accomplishment especially in the way that he handled it, being down two-sets-to-love against Medvedev. Having a rain delay obviously really gave him the chance to kind of regroup and come back and be able to win that match I think was really pivotal,” says Chang.

“Conditions were a lot heavier that year as well, a lot of the traditional clay-court players were losing earlier than usual. Obviously both Andres [Agassi and Medvedev] play a little flatter ball, they like to take the ball early, so I remember very well the conditions were very different than what they normally were. So that helped Andre to be able to go out there and be able to get the career Grand Slam.”

Finding the belief

Former Wimbledon and US Open champion Stan Smith, the president of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, looks back very fondly on that 1999 final.

“That was a special match for me,” said Smith.

“He lost a match before that to Courier and you know you don’t believe you can do it until you actually do it, especially if you lost in the finals, and he’s lost a couple of finals actually before that, also to Andres Gomez. If you don’t have belief in yourself, especially after you’ve lost a couple of times in the finals, to then really do it, and to finish off the career Grand Slam is pretty special.

“He put himself in the elite. Of course he ended up 14 Grand Slams behind his wife, but he did pretty well,” Smith added with a laugh, referring to the 22 majors won by Agassi's partner Steffi Graf.