Shining Agassi withers Clement

Stephen Bierley sees the champion sweep to his seventh grand slam title in sunny Melbourne
Stephen Bierley
Mon 29 Jan 2001 13.12 EST

There was always a danger that France's Arnaud Clément, having reached his first grand slam final, indeed only the third singles final of his career, might end up playing a bit part in the great Andre Agassi road show. And so it proved, the 30-year-old American winning his third Australian Open title 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 with businesslike efficiency.

"Arnaud, escargot," a lone Australian voice rhymed out with stentorian glee during the third set, which was both pitiless and unjust, for Clément is the fastest man on the circuit, a fleetness of foot which on occasions made Agassi, a nice little mover himself, appear decidedly ponderous. Perhaps the reference to a snail was because the man from Las Vegas was simply pounding the Clément carapace to tiny bits.

"I have beaten him two times before but today his game was two or three levels higher," said Clément. "It was impossible to beat him today. Impossible. He was just too strong."

Having played his dramatic semi-final against his fellow Frenchman Sébastien Grosjean with the roof of the Rod Laver stadium closed because of intermittent rain, the 23-year-old Clément, seven years younger than Agassi, reverted to his prescription wrap-around sunglasses for a Melbourne day that might have been plucked from the Cte d'Azur. And there was no doubting the clarity of his vision in the opening service game, which he took to love, but thereafter Agassi, on the way to his seventh grand slam title, putting him on a par with John McEnroe, John Newcombe and Mats Wilander, was generally dominant.

There were a number of remarkable rallies and stunning shots by Clément but Agassi was the boss, except for the third set when he suddenly appeared a little flat-footed and wary.

The Frenchman, only 5ft 8in tall, was beginning to punish the Agassi serve, despite not being able to hold his own. The first three games of this set all went against the serve, and then Clément had four more break points as Agassi pressed hard for a decisive 3-1 lead. He achieved it, and the relief was palpable. It was, in effect, Clément's last stand. Had he levelled at 2-2 there is just a chance he might have turned the match around, as he had against Grosjean, and Agassi was all too aware of the danger.

Perhaps this was why Agassi's victory speech had more than a touch of valediction about it. He did not say that he would not be back but this was, after all, his first tournament victory since he won here last year, and although Clément clearly lacked the American's control, variation, and above all experience, he frequently hit the ball harder than Agassi and was certainly quicker.

As in last November's Masters Cup final which he lost to Brazil's Gustavo Kuerten, Agassi displayed further signs of ageing. The slowing-down process is as yet far from terminal but there seems every likelihood that this will be his last year at the top, with so many young and talented players breathing down his neck.

Not that worries about the quality of the opposition were too obvious in his post-match reflections. Far from it. "I hope I can get better. That's my goal. That's what I want to do. You're always striving for the perfect, perfect game and match."

It is dangerous to make predictions about Agassi, for he has already made fools of those who wrote him off in 1997 when he plummeted out of the top 100. Two years later he won the French and US Opens and was runner-up to Pete Sampras at Wimbledon. Since then two Australian Opens have been bagged, but he cannot go on for ever.

His argument is that because his career has been a stop-go affair he still has plenty left. "I think the down periods in my career have played a big part in my ability to be healthy and determined now, and I still feel that sense of hunger."

Whereas Agassi knew precisely what to do to win this match, Clément was lost. "He's very talented and he can really hurt you with his speed," said the American. "There are lots of guys who are bigger and more powerful but he presents a whole different rhythm. But he's always going to have to work hard to win."

Clément has proved himself a bonny fighter, but whether he has the weapons to capture the big prizes remains in doubt. However, assuming Grosjean gets over the trauma of his semi-final defeat by Clément, these two French friends may well push each other into the top 10.

In comparison, American men's tennis appears to be living on borrowed time, for there is nobody emerging to replace Agassi and Sampras. The pair are fast approaching the end of the road, and it will be fascinating to see which of them lands the final grand slam of their joint careers. In this respect Agassi has taken the initiative, with Sampras, beaten in the fourth round here by Todd Martin, looking tired and uninterested. Come Wimbledon, of course, the Sampras juices will doubtless be flowing again.

• Todd Woodbridge won his 12th grand slam title when he and his new Swedish partner Jonas Bjorkman won the men's doubles final. The fourth seeds beat the No14 seeds Byron Black of Zimbabwe and David Prinosil of Germany 6-1, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 in just under three hours. It was the first time Woodbridge had partnered Bjorkman at a grand slam; the Australian's long-time doubles partner Mark Woodforde retired after the Sydney Olympics.

Thirtysomething champions

Since the sport went open in 1968 only seven men have won grand slam titles in their thirties:

1969 Rod Laver (grand slam) 31yrs 1 month

1972Ken Rosewall (Australian) 37yrs 2m

1975 Arthur Ashe (Wimbledon) 31yrs 11m

1975 John Newcombe (Australian) 31yrs 4m

1983 Jimmy Connors (US Open) 31yrs

1990 Andres Gomez (French) 30yrs 4m

2001 Andre Agassi (Australian) 30yr 9m

All-time grand slam winners

13 Pete Sampras

12 Roy Emerson

11 Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg

10 Bill Tilden

8 Fred Perry, Ken Rosewall, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl

7 Richard Sears, William Renshaw, Bill Larned, Henri Cochet, Rene Lacoste, John Newcombe, John McEnroe, Mats Wilander, Andre Agassi