- The Washington Times - Monday, September 12, 2005

NEW YORK — Roger Federer, a man of panache and unparalleled perfection in finals, withstood Andre Agassi’s spirited upset bid to capture a second straight U.S. Open and sixth Grand Slam title.

Federer responded to his few moments of pressure by reeling off seven straight points in the tiebreak that turned around the match, then blew Agassi away in the fourth set to win 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (1), 6-1 yesterday and run his stunning record in finals over the past two years to 23-0.

“This is probably the most special Grand Slam final in my career,” Federer said. “To play against Andre in New York, it’s a dream.”

Federer moved into a tie with Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker for Grand Slam titles among Open era players, and one behind John McEnroe and Mats Wilander. Pete Sampras holds the record with 14 Grand Slam titles, but at 24 years old Federer could well have a shot at that.

Federer shrieked and leapt in the air when Agassi’s backhand return looped long on the championship point. The two men, who have the highest of respect for each other, shook hands warmly at the net.

“It’s been a tough road, but it’s been a great road,” Agassi told the cheering crowd. “Roger played way too good today. Congratulations Roger, well done.”

Though the 35-year-old Agassi was the oldest U.S. Open men’s finalist in 31 years, age had less to do with the difference in this match than Federer’s sheer strength, variety of serves, and superior balance of attacks from the baseline and the net that wore down Agassi.

The Swiss forced the action, going for winners more aggressively, dancing around the court with poise, unrattled even when Agassi had him down a break at 4-2 in the third set. For a while there, Agassi seemed to be on the verge of pulling one of the great upsets in sports history — on the order of Muhammad Ali’s shockers over Sonny Liston and George Foreman.

An 8-1 underdog, Agassi was just a few months removed from a career-threatening back injury that shot crippling pain down his right leg, led to his loss in the first round of the French Open and caused him to skip Wimbledon. He was playing a man who doesn’t lose in finals, who is at the peak of his game and health, and who is coming off his third straight Wimbledon championship.

If this was Agassi’s last U.S. Open after 20 straight — he won’t decide until the end of the year whether to retire — it was remarkable even in defeat.

“This certainly isn’t easy to do at any age, especially 35,” Agassi said. “It’s been a privilege to compete against so many great champions over the last couple of decades or so. Without exception, Roger has been one of most enjoyable to compete against. Thank you New York for the last 20 years. It’s been a great ride.”

Federer became the first man in the Open era, which started in 1968, to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open back-to-back for the second consecutive year. Three players have done it twice, though not in consecutive years: Jimmy Connors, McEnroe and Sampras. The last player to accomplish the feat was Don Budge in 1937-38.

Federer beat Agassi for the eighth straight time over the past two years after losing their first three meetings. Three of Federer’s victories in that streak have come at Grand Slam events, including the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open last year and the Australian Open this year.

“I had to play my best match of the tournament,” Federer said. “It happened I played my best in the finals, as usual. I don’t know how I do it, but it definitely feels great every single time.”

Federer drew first blood when he broke Agassi for a 4-2 lead in the first set, but putting that set away wasn’t easy. Agassi fended off three set points in his next service at 5-2, and won it with an ace. Federer needed five more set points when he served before he nailed down the set with a 123 mph service winner.

“He plays the game in a very special way that I haven’t seen before,” said Agassi, who played so many memorable matches against Sampras and other champions. “I think he’s the best I’ve played against. He’s the only guy I’ve ever played against you hold serve to go 1-0 and you think all right, good. And I’m not just making fun of it.

“There’s a sense of urgency on every point, on every shot. It’s an incredible challenge. I certainly didn’t have enough today.”

Rather than shrink away, Agassi briefly showed the stuff that helped him win eight major titles. He broke Federer for a 2-0 lead in the second set, hammering a forehand return crosscourt that came back to Federer faster than his 111 mph serve. Agassi held serve the whole set, and raised hopes of an upset when he broke Federer again in the last game.

This was a crafty, sharp Agassi, sometimes creeping in five or 10 feet inside the baseline to surprise Federer with short-hop returns, sometimes serving and volleying. Agassi lobbed for some points, won others with drops.

The crowd had been on Agassi’s side from the start, greeting him with chants of “Let’s go, Andre” and chanting his name. But Federer asserted himself again, and after one exchange of breaks midway through the third set, the Swiss bulled his way through the tiebreak.

Agassi was well aware of Federer’s record in finals — and mightily impressed by it.

“That stat alone is pretty crazy,” Agassi said. “You’re talking about the best that are left in the tournament and he’s winning that many times in a row.”

Losing the tiebreak the way he did and getting run over in the fourth set was enough to demoralize Agassi and make him think back about his trip to get this far — possibly ending his Grand Slam journey in New York, a city he hated when he first came as a young man with big hair, a big game and a different attitude.

“They can’t ever take away from what I’m leaving here with and that’s the memory of thousands of people pulling for me and showing appreciation for something I care dearly about.”

Going out with a loss would hurt, he said, but he put it in perspective.

“The first thing you have to assess is why did you lose,” he said. “I just lost to a guy that’s better. There’s only so long you can deny it. He’s the best I’ve ever played against.”

Federer earned the $1.1million top prize and distanced himself further from the rest of men’s tennis world in the ATP Tour rankings. Agassi picked up $775,000, including $225,000 as the runner-up in the U.S. Open Series.

Federer won his 10th tournament this year and 32nd title overall — 20 on hard courts. He ran his 2005 record to 45-1 on hard courts and 71-3 overall, the most dominant year by a man since John McEnroe went 82-3 in 1984. Federer’s 35th straight hard court victory also broke Sampras’ mark, set twice, of 34 straight.

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