1996 and 2000

In Atlanta there was a 100th anniversary of  the modern Olympic games, which had been revived by Pierre de Coubertin in Athens 1896. Andre Agassi who’d skipped two Olympics during his career (1988, 1992) was very eager to get the commemorative medal in front of the home crowd on his beloved surface. Because the draw was deprived of his biggest rivals at the time Pete Sampras and Thomas Muster, he was the main favorite and fulfilled expectations, albeit had a very tough road to the final (two tie-breaks in the first round against Bjorkman; 2-6 0:3 against Gaudenzi in the third round; 3:5 in the decider against Ferreira in the quarter-finals) which won with an unexpected ease… Four years later in Sydney, the draw was much more open, it was a time in men’s tennis when many players could win the gold medal. Marat Safin was a slight favorite just after winning his first major at the US Open, however, the tall Russian had a very tricky draw, and was beaten in the first round by his biggest nemesis Fabrice Santoro (5-0 in their H2H for Santoro after that match!). Safin’s loss caused the draw was even more open and Safin’s compatriot, one of the most experienced players at the time – Yevgeny Kafelnikov took an advantage of it, although he had not won an ATP title in 2000 before the Olympics. Three local favorites, Patrick Rafter, Lleyton Hewitt and Mark Philippoussis disappointed totally, neither of them advanced at least to the quarter-finals, and Australia (the only country along with Great Britain and Switzerland to send its team to every Olympics), one of the biggest tennis nations in history, remains medal-less in singles up to this day.

…Atlanta (USA), 1996… XXVI Olympic Games
July 22 – August 3; 64 Draw (16 seeded); Surface – Hard

Quarterfinals: Julie Cart

They riot because they want to see Andre Agassi. They clamor for glamor. The Olympic tennis fans at Stone Mountain Park know how to get their money’s worth: Watch the highly erratic Agassi dig himself deep into a pit, pile break points on top of himself, then growl and snap and slash his way out with precision ground strokes. Agassi may not be worth a riot, but he’s worth watching. The down-on-his-game tennis player is clawing his way to the medal rounds and landed in the men’s semifinals by virtue of his 7-5 4-6 7-5 win over South African Wayne Ferreira on Tuesday. The top-seeded Agassi will play Leander Paes of India, a wild-card entrant, in the semifinals. Paes was the surprise winner Tuesday over 14th-seeded Renzo Furlan of Italy 6-1 7-5. Spain’s Sergei Bruguera defeated MaliVai Washington in another quarterfinal match 7-6(8) 4-6 7-5. Bruguera will play Fernando Meligeni of Brazil, who defeated Andrei Olhovskiy of Russia 7-5 6-3. Agassi has suffered through a dismal season but still commands attention. The center court crowd had raucously protested the move of an Agassi -Washington doubles match to another court last Sunday, a tennis tempest that prompted the tournament referee to reschedule the match. The 16,010 fans at Tuesday’s match were not only fans of any player from the USA but also savvy enough to know that with only three of the top 10 players entered here, only the seventh-ranked Agassi remains to dust the Olympic tournament with the glitter of the professional tour. It was offered in full measure. Agassi’s sometimes brilliant shots mixed with his alarming stretches of lassitude and his foul language that continues to be audible to everyone at court-side but the chair umpire. The 10th-ranked Ferreira represented the tour’s rank and file. He had never beaten Agassi in five attempts. In Tuesday’s match, Ferreira won a set for the first time. Leave it to Agassi to oblige the fans by providing the drama necessary to keep the fans in their seats in uncomfortable conditions of 90 degrees and 77 percent humidity. Agassi won the first set, then lost interest, his specialty this season. Agassi jazzed up the proceedings with a profane outburst after the first game of the second set. Both players had been harrumphing about line calls since the start of the match, and Agassi chose that moment to lash out with some particularly pointed remarks. He was warned, then issued a point penalty. Trailing 5:3, Agassi held serve then broke Ferreira with the help of four unforced errors. Agassi held again to lead the set 6:5, then closed out the match when Ferreira made four more unforced errors in the final game. Ferreira thought Agassi had gone too far well before the penalty was issued and that the umpire had not gone far enough. “I honestly believe he should be kicked off the court for the things he was saying,” Ferreira said. “They were pretty rude and actually the worst I’ve ever heard anybody say.” With three unseeded players in the semis, Agassi ‘s toughest match may be behind him. Ferreira, a South African seeded fifth, came up with 22 aces.

Semifinals: Steve Wine

Andre Agassi created a stir with the tennis fashion police when he began the Olympics wearing a long-sleeve shirt and bicycle cap. He’ll depart wearing a medal. Agassi ‘s fans are sure to love the new look. A partisan crowd of 11,000 roared when he clinched at least a silver Thursday by beating Leander Paes 7-6(5) 6-3. The top-seeded Agassi advanced to Saturday’s best-of-5 final against unseeded Spaniard Sergi Bruguera, who beat Fernando Meligeni of Brazil 7-6(9) 6-2. Bruguera in fourth consecutive match, won a long first set tie-break (9-7 against Boetsch and Rusedski, 10-8 against Washington, 11-9 against Meligeni)! “It would be unbelievable to win a gold medal,” said Agassi . “This will be a huge match to me.” Paes, seeking India’s first medal in any sport since 1980, will play Meligeni for the bronze. Each player broke serve once in the opening set, and Agassi faced double set point serving at 5:6, 15/40, but Paes hit a return long and pushed an easy volley wide. “That’s the real point the match turned around in his favor,” Paes said. Paes wore his cap backward in the second set but failed to reverse his fortunes. He erased six break points before floating a volley long to give Agassi a 5:3 lead. On match point Paes hit a forehand wide, and a jubilant Agassi waved, blew kisses and bowed to the crowd. Even before the opening ceremony, Agassi equated the Olympics with a Grand Slam, and he has played with a passion sometimes absent from his game. But Agassi encountered more difficulty than expected against Paes, a wild-card entry ranked No. 127. “He hit like maybe 25 drop shots,” Agassi said. “That’s strange. But just because he plays strange doesn’t mean it’s not good. It’s just strange.” “The fans are the best we’ve seen in any tennis arena here in the United States,” Agassi said. “People love their tennis here, and they finally got the greatest event they could ever hope for. And you’re seeing a heck of a lot of support.” Among those absent has been Agassi ‘s father, Mike, who gets nervous watching his son play. The elder Agassi was an Olympic boxer for Iran in 1948 and 1952.

Final: Steve Wine

With no sweat and a couple of tears, Andre Agassi became a gold medalist Saturday. The second-generation Olympian overwhelmed Sergi Bruguera of Spain 6-2 6-3 6-1, then succumbed to the emotion of the victory on the medal stand. “Hearing the anthem was the greatest accomplishment I’ve had in this game,” Agassi said. He shared a post-victory embrace with his father, Mike, an Olympic boxer for Iran in 1948 and 1952. The elder Agassi rarely attends matches because they make him nervous, but he surprised his son by flying in from Las Vegas for the final. “After the match I gave him a chance to get closer to a gold than he ever got,” Agassi said with a grin. While six top-10 players skipped the Olympics, Agassi said from the beginning of the year the games were his top priority. He passed up the opening ceremony, the athletes village and events in other sports to concentrate on tennis. With the gold in hand, he ranked it ahead of his three Grand Slam titles, including Wimbledon in 1992. “I’ll keep this over all of them,” he said.  “To win a Grand Slam in the sport of tennis is the greatest accomplishment inside the sport. To win an Olympic gold medal is the greatest thing you can accomplish in any sport.” Against Bruguera, Agassi made the achievement look easy, hitting the ball deep and hard and seeming to anticipate every shot by the Spaniard. Bruguera, a two-time French Open champion, said he’d never seen Agassi play better. “When he’s on, he’s the best player in the world,” Bruguera said. “He played too good for me today.” Overpowered, Bruguera committed 60 unforced errors – almost one per minute in the 77-minute match. Agassi dominated from the start, winning 14 consecutive points at one stretch and closing out the first set at love with a pair of aces. The unseeded Bruguera made a stand briefly in the second set, when he won a 14-point game to break Agassi . But Agassi immediately broke back for a 3:2 lead and pulled away from there. The crowd of 11,000 loved it. Fans urged on the American with shouts of  ‘Agassi rules,” ‘Viva Las Vegas!” and ‘We love you, man!’‘ On the third match point, Agassi hit a forehand winner, then pumped his arms in jubilation to cheers and chants of ‘U-S-A, U-S-A.” Agassi doffed his cap, bowed and blew kisses to the crowd. He hugged his father and his fiancée, Brooke Shields, who joined him on the court and videotaped the award ceremony. Agassi accepted the medal, which matched his earrings. Then the national anthem played, and two tears rolled down his left cheek. At the start of the Olympics, Agassi was the top seed, but hardly a big favorite. He had lost four of his previous six matches, dropping him to No. 7 in the rankings. Agassi became the first American to win the gold in men’s singles since Vincent Richards in 1924, and his victory gave the United States a sweep of singles against Spain. Lindsay Davenport, another second-generation Olympian, beat Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the women’s final Friday. In the match for the bronze in men’s singles, Leander Paes claimed India’s first Olympic medal in any sport since 1980, beating Brazilian Fernando Meligeni 3-6 6-2 6-4.

…Sydney (Australia), 2000… XXVII Olympic Games
September 19-28; 64 Draw (16 seeded); Surface – Hard

Quarterfinals: AP

Russia’s former world number one Yevgeny Kafelnikov is the only seed left in the men’s singles after beating Gustavo Kuerten in straight sets to reach the last four. Kafelnikov, seeded five, won 6-4 7-5 to set up a semi-final clash with France’s Arnaud Di Pasquale. “It’s a very small thing left for me to do, to win two matches and I will be Olympic gold medallist and champion,” said a confident Kafelnikov. “All I can tell you is that not too many people can beat me on this surface. Before I came here I wasn’t playing as well as perhaps I would like to have. But after I won a few matches I got my confidence back and I started to believe in myself again that I could win it.” Di Pasquale, ranked 78th in the world, had already knocked out ninth seed Nicolas Kiefer of Germany and Sweden’s Magnus Norman, the number three seed, and added eighth seed Juan Carlos Ferrero to his list of victims. Ferrero managed to win just three games in a 6-2 6-1 defeat. “If I could play like that every match I would not have my current ranking,” Di Pasquale said. Germany’s Tommy Haas also went through to the last four, beating Max Mirnyi of Belarus 4-6 7-5 6-3. He will face Roger Federer of Switzerland who beat Karim Alami of Morocco 7-6(2) 6-1. Haas, during his 2-hour-2 minute win, had not a break point until the 12th game of the 2nd set. He notched a 5-game winning streak and got the victory on his fifth match point.

Semifinals: Steven Wine

Yevgeny Kafelnikov talked of skipping the Olympics. He wasn’t happy with his game and wasn’t sure he wanted to make the long trip. Now he’s glad he came. To his astonishment and delight, the fifth-seeded Russian will play for the gold medal Thursday (Wednesday night EDT) against unseeded German Tommy Haas, another surprising finalist. A wave of early upsets opened up the draw for both players. Six U.S. Open quarter-finalists made the trip to Sydney, and five were eliminated in the first round, including Kafelnikov ‘s countryman, new No. 1 Marat Safin. Kafelnikov and Haas took advantage of the situation, and both believe they’re now near the top of their game. Kafelnikov beat Arnaud Di Pasquale of France 6-4 6-4 in the semifinals Tuesday, while Haas defeated Roger Federer of Switzerland 6-3 6-2. “Before the tournament, I did not expect to even win a few matches, the way I was playing,” Kafelnikov said. “But I got my confidence back.” The two-time Grand Slam champion has enjoyed a lot of success on Australia’s hardcourts. He won the Australian Open last year and was runner-up in January, losing in the final to Andre Agassi. He hasn’t won a tournament this year and failed to reach even the semifinals at the French or U.S. Open. But a gold medal would make 2000 a success. “Let’s put it this way: The results that I had this year will all be forgotten for me if I win this tournament,” he said. “If I win the gold medal, this year has been perhaps the best of my career. That’s how important it is for me and my country.” Haas also regards the Olympics as an opportunity to salvage a disappointing year. He blames hip and back injuries for his decline in the rankings to 48th from 11th in January. Like Kafelnikov, Haas hasn’t won a tournament this year. Also like Kafelnikov, he nearly skipped the trip to Sydney. “I was totally out of shape,” Haas said. “I was really considering not coming because it’s the Olympics, and if you play, you want to play well.” That will be the goal again in the final.

Final: AP

With a marathon performance and a jubilant heave of his racket, Yevgeny Kafelnikov capped a marvelous month for Russian tennis. Kafelnikov outlasted Tommy Haas of Germany 7-6(4) 3-6 6-2 4-6 6-3 for the gold medal in men’s singles Thursday, then celebrated by tossing his racket 15 rows into the stands. “To add a gold medal to my career, it’s absolutely fantastic,” Kafelnikov said. Fellow Russian Elena Dementieva won the silver in women’s singles. Less than three weeks ago, countryman Marat Safin beat Pete Sampras to win the U.S. Open. “My country is taking over in tennis,” Kafelnikov said. “It has been a very sensational year.” Kafelnikov won a 3-hour, 34-minute thriller that came down to the only break point of the final set. Haas hit an easy backhand into the net to give Kafelnikov a 5:3 lead, and the Russian served out the match at love. Kafelnikov improved to 5-1 this year in five-setters, including three victories at the French Open and one at the U.S. Open. He learned only after his semifinal victory at Sydney that the Olympic final was best-of-five. “I said, ‘Well, maybe that’s good,” he said. “In best-of-five my chances are a little better than in best-of-three.” The tournament title was the first this year for Kafelnikov, a two-time Grand Slam champion. He was seeded fifth, but had talked of skipping the Olympics because he was discouraged by the way he was playing. “I thought that I wasn’t even going to challenge for any medals,” he said. “I was just hoping to participate.” There were four service breaks in the 70-minute opening set before Kafelnikov won the tiebreaker. He landed a cross-court backhand on the sideline to reach set point, and Haas then dumped a backhand into the bottom of the net. But the hustling Haas kept coming back and wowed the sellout crowd with several scrambling saves, once blocking a Kafelnikov overhead back for a winner. Kafelnikov seemed to have the momentum after dominating the third set, but Haas broke to start the fourth set and easily held serve five consecutive times to force a fifth set. The unseeded Haas, playing in his second final this year, took the defeat well. Like Kafelnikov, he was smiling on the medal podium. “Going home with the silver medal, I couldn’t ask for more,” Haas said. Arnaud Di Pasquale of France won the bronze in men’s singles Wednesday, beating Roger Federer of Switzerland, 7-6(5) 6-7(7) 6-3. Federer led 3:0 in the 1st tie-break, saved a match point on return in the second one.

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