A pair of veterans show they're far from finished

By , Senior sports columnist of The Christian Science

While Wimbledon, which begins June 21, is the greatest of the tennis championships, the just-concluded French Open in Paris is the most romantic, the most passionate, and, thus, often the most emotional.

It's the nature of the French people to routinely bring all these qualities to things they care about the most, like food, art, and, for sure, the French Open. It doesn't dampen their ardor that the event has not been won by a French citizen since Charlemagne was a toddler, or thereabouts.

Indeed, the 1999 French Open was a magnificent souffl of wonderment.

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That's because both winners - Steffi Graf for the women and Andre Agassi for the men - taught us far more about life than they did about tennis.

What filled our hearts with ecstasy was the grit of the two winners, both of whom have had towering moments but, lately, debilitating disappointments. Both were widely thought to be past-tense people rather than future considerations.

It seemed saddest with Graf. Back when she was a child, the chatter started that she just might become the greatest player ever, ahead of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. Chatter begun is chatter believed. At times, she was a doe caught in the headlights.

Once, visited by a writer at her home in Germany, she took him to the garage where there were four cars she already had won. She was not old enough to drive.

Graf turned out to be, by mortal standards, sensationally good. She has won 22 Grand Slam events, including the French now six times and Wimbledon seven. But she never stole our hearts like Chrissie, never caused us to cluck in admiration of her skills like Martina. All she did was prompt us to ask why she wasn't better.

Winning 107 singles titles was not enough; she trails Evert and Navratilova significantly. Being ranked No. 1 a record 365 weeks was not enough.

Then trouble showed its ugly face. Her father, Peter, got himself into a panoply of tax investigations and other personal problems. Graf played on. But she was bedeviled by injury piled on injury. She went from being a star to a used-to-be.

Even Graf figured her chances this year at the French were poor.

And then she started playing. It didn't take long before it became clear we were looking at a resurrected Graf. By the time she played Martina Hingis of Switzerland in the finals, French emotion ran high. Hingis, the No. 1-ranked player, went from being smug (at one point, all she had to do was hold serve to win the match) to being mad. Her deportment nearly got her thrown out of the match. At the end, she was awash in boos and bitter tears.

Graf, through all of this, was elegant. "Somehow," she mused, "I did it."

Agassi can never be accused of being elegant. He looks like an unmade bed. He has had an attitude that caused many to cringe and a suspect work ethic. He, too, had an array of personal problems. It's true he had won 40 tournaments before the French but, again, our expectations were far higher based on talents exhibited.

And then he, like Graf, abruptly righted himself. He got into shape. His lackluster intensity gave way to laser-like focus.

He fell behind Ukraine's Andrei Medvedev 2-0 in sets, the winner needing three sets to win. The old Agassi would have come unhinged and collapsed. He did neither. And this is how Agassi became only the fifth man ever to win all four major titles, joining the likes of the legendary Don Budge and Rod Laver.

What Graf and Agassi showed us was perseverance when adversity had a stranglehold. They showed us what can happen when dreams meet want-to. Their tears came because they tried so hard and wanted it so much, which speaks grandly to the essence of sport.

They taught us much in Paris, and tennis was only a backdrop for the lessons.

*Send comments to looneyd@csps.com

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