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Agassi captures Australian Open, sets his sights on spot in history

A victory over Kafelnikov gives the world's No. 1 player his third Grand Slam title in eight months.

Is Andre Agassi now to be considered superior to Pete Sampras, better than Grand Slammers Rod Laver and Don Budge, the best of all time?

Heretical notions, perhaps, especially Down Under in Laver country, but one not without merit as Agassi barrels through the Grand Slams.

Champion at the French, U.S. and Australian opens, and runner-up at Wimbledon in the past eight months, Agassi is playing at a level so high, on such varied courts, against such deep draws, he is arguably the most talented man ever to pick up a racket.

Agassi's game, built on power with touches of finesse, sparkled in his march to the Australian Open title Sunday in a 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 victory over defending champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

Agassi bludgeoned groundstrokes with metronomic regularity to wear down Kafelnikov, and threw in enough slices and drop shots to harass the weary Russian into submission.

In a tournament on a speedy, rubberized Rebound Ace court, Agassi rebuffed the two best servers in the sport, Sampras and Mark Philippoussis, and the next best baseline player, Kafelnikov. With his sleek, toned, muscular physique and his uncannily quick reflexes, Agassi was able to cut down bigger opponents like a body puncher in boxing.

When Laver completed the Grand Slam in 1962 and 1969, and when Budge did it in 1938, they played on grass everywhere except on the French red clay.

Neither that nor the fact that they also faced less fierce competition and smaller fields _ 64-man draws at the Australian, for example _ diminishes their achievements. In their eras, they were the best.

So were Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe in their days, but none won all the majors.

But consider what Agassi has done. At a time when tennis is a high-paying sport loaded with great athletes from around the world, he has beaten everyone but Sampras at Wimbledon in the majors the past year. That's a 27-1 record on clay, grass and the different hardcourts of the U.S. and Australian opens.

Asked what it would mean to him to complete the Grand Slam by winning all four majors in the same calendar year, Agassi said: "The same thing as winning the lottery would mean to everybody in here. I couldn't even comprehend it."

Though Sampras has won six times at Wimbledon, the oldest and most prestigious of the majors, his annual torture at the French exposes the limits of his game. Not even a career-high 37 aces against Agassi in the semifinals here could save Sampras once Agassi got him into a rally mode.

"Every time with Pete it's a big challenge," Agassi's coach, Brad Gilbert said. "Deep down, Andre thinks he has to get better to stay where he is."

Getting better is what it's all about now to the 29-year-old Agassi. His resurgence to the top from No. 141 a little more than two years ago was built on a commitment to fitness and a belief that if he were in peak shape nobody could beat him.

"I feel like I'm stronger than I have ever been, I'm fitter than I've ever been, I'm moving better than I've ever moved," Agassi said.

Agassi's embrace of the most rigorous training regimen came after too many wasted years of getting by just on his raw talent and reflexes. He drifted in and out of the gym, in and out of tennis, happy to play when the muse struck. Now his attitude is different.

"I can assure you if I fall off the face of the earth again, I'm not coming back," he said. "But I'll take it as long as it's there for me."