Andre Agassi could salute the crowd and blow kisses to wife Brooke Shields once again.
Agassi, whose precipitous fall from No. 1 in the world out of the top 100 raised concerns about his future in the sport, defeated No. 1-ranked Pete Sampras in the Sybase Open final on Sunday.
A confident and hard-hitting Agassi upset Sampras 6-2, 6-4 to provide dramatic proof that his comeback is for real.
"It's been a question of regrouping entirely, getting back to basics and getting back in shape," Agassi said about his newfound strength and control, evident against Sampras.
It was his first final since defeating Michael Chang in Cincinnati in August, 1996, and his fourth Sybase title. He also won it in 1990, '93 and '95.
"I'm a little bummed I'm not playing another match tomorrow," Agassi said. "I feel like I'm serving better than ever, and my shots have a little stick to them."
When Sampras hit long for match point, a jubilant Agassi raised his hands in victory and blew a kiss to the fans, as Shields cheered wildly and the crowd gave him a standing ovation.
Sampras, the top seed and two-time defending champion, appeared sluggish despite 17 aces. He was stunned after the match.
"He was just on top of his game," Sampras said. "I was a little bit off."
Agassi went up 2-1 in the first set, with a cross-court backhand for break point. He broke serve again to go up 4-1, and kept command the rest of the way on the fast surface at the San Jose Arena.
Plagued by broken strings, Sampras used five rackets during the match. Down 5-2 in the first set, he continued to rally with broken strings, then playfully pretended he was about to throw his racket into the crowd when he lost the point. Even Agassi laughed.
"I've broken four or five strings in a match," Sampras said. "The string is so tight and it's a thin gut, it will break. That's the price you pay with tension. Unfortunately, it came on a break point or big points, and that didn't help."
The two men had not played each other since the November 1996 ATP World Championship in Hanover, Germany, which Sampras won. The last time Agassi beat Sampras was in 1995 at Montreal.
Two years ago at the Sybase, the results were the opposite with Sampras easily defeating Agassi 6-2, 6-3. Overall, Sampras leads the series between the two, 12-9.
Sunday's victory was the culmination of Agassi's hard work toward a comeback.
He ended 1996 ranked No. 8, but his game fell off dramatically last year, with his ranking plummeting to as low as No. 141 in November.
This year, a revitalized Agassi has been on a steady climb, with more final and semifinal appearances than all of last year. Currently, he is ranked No. 71 and may have played himself into position to lead the United States against Russia in the first round of the Davis Cup in April.
He reached the semifinals in Auckland, then this week defeated French Open champio Gustavo Kuerten and No. 2 seed Michael Chang.
A wild card entry in the Sybase, Agassi was asked if he felt he could return to the No.1 ranking, which he last held in 1995.
"Is Pete listening?" he joked. "Yeah, I think I can."
Sampras had won 14 consecutive Sybase matches before Sunday's loss. He said he was disappointed with the outcome, but overall felt he had a strong week with victories over Mark Woodforde and a hard-serving John van Lottum.
"I'm not discouraged by any means," he said. "I'll go home and get back to work."
In the doubles final Sunday, top-ranked Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde defeated Nelson Aerts and Andre Sa, 6-1, 7-5.
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