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Agassi, Courier renew rivalry in final

Andre Agassi and Jim Courier, former rivals at Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, meet today in the French Open for a title that for decades seemed off-limits to Americans. After a 34-year lapse, Michael Chang broke the jinx in 1989. The last time two Americans met in the final was in 1954, when Tony Trabert beat Art Larsen. Trabert also won in 1955.

Now another American is guaranteed to win.

"American tennis has gone up a step," Agassi said. "Maybe after us there will be a drop, but it seems to go in cycles."

Agassi and Courier are meeting for the third year in a row at the French Open, but the first time for such high stakes.

Agassi, of Las Vegas, is in his second consecutive French Open final. Last year, he lost in four sets to Andres Gomez, who did not return to defend the title.

Ironically, it was a loss to Gomez that played a role in Courier reaching this year's final.

"It kind of registered on me when I lost to Andres Gomez last year in Cincinnati," Courier recalled, "and he said he had an easy time beating me because he had more variety in his game and that kind of stung. One of the things he said to me is that the points count the same whether you win it or the other guy loses it. I don't have to hit a winner on every point."

So Courier phoned Jose Higueras, the lithe and graceful Spainard, who had reached two French Open semifinals and had been among the world's top 10 twice, before retiring to Palm Springs, Calif., to work as a member of the United States Tennis Association coaching system.

"I think deep in his heart he had seen his buddies (Andre) Agassi, Pete (Sampras) and (Michael) Chang make a big jump and maybe he started to get a little worried about his game," said Higueras.

Two years previous, Higueras' teachings had helped Chang along on his remarkable French Open championship run.

So Courier took a hotel room and spent a month working out with Higueras in the California desert resort.

"He has really opened up my eyes to how to play tennis," Courier said. "He taught me to use what I've got in a more sensible way. He really taught me how to play tennis instead of just hitting the ball."

Agassi, 21, thinks he is better prepared for the title match this time.

"Mentally, I am more ready for it," he said. "I'll make Courier have to earn it. I feel good about it."

Agassi, known as much for his flashy clothes as his tennis titles, has a 4-2 record against Courier. However, Courier won their only match this year.

Courier, 20, has played in only three finals, but won them all.

Although both Courier and Agassi worked with Bollettieri during the mid-1980s, they were never close friends.

"We get on much better," Courier said. "We don't spend any time together, but in the past we didn't even speak.

"Now we talk in the locker room and play a few exhibitions and that has helped. We've both grown."

MEN'S FINAL

Andre Agassi vs. Jim Courier, 9 a.m. on Ch. 8.

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