MELBOURNE, Australia -- A year ago, Yevgeny Kafelnikov thanked Pete Sampras for not showing up. Now, he's thanking Andre Agassi for sending Sampras away.
Whether Kafelnikov will be so pleased after Sunday's Australian Open final is another matter.
For the moment, Kafelnikov is thrilled to be defending his title against Agassi instead of Sampras. It's more than a matter of numbers, although Kafelnikov's four victories in nine matches against Agassi is more encouraging than his two in 12 against Sampras.
Rather, the issue is one of attitude and style. When the Russian speaks of Sampras, his voice takes on reverential tones and he admits to being overwhelmed by the prospect of Sampras' power. When Kafelnikov discusses Agassi, he sounds eager and optimistic, feeling he has nothing to fear.
"I like to play him," Kafelnikov said after reaching the final with a 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 victory over Magnus Norman on Friday. "I would have taken Andre in a heartbeat to play instead of Pete, just because our game matches up against each other. Neither of us can dominate the other. Pete can dominate. If his serve is working, you have no shot beating him. But with Andre, at least you have a chance."
Despite losing his last three matches to Agassi, all on hard courts, Kafelnikov feels he can keep up with him in long rallies, hold his own on serves, and not be intimidated by Agassi's serves as he is by Sampras'.
"I can play with him on the baseline all day," Kafelnikov said, "although he generates the pace very nicely. That's why he dominates against other players, because they don't know what they have to do to use his weakness. And I know how to do it."
Agassi's weakness, Kafelnikov said, has been fading when he falls behind early.
"Andre has been known for it," Kafelnikov said. "If you play a best-of-five-sets match with him and you are up two sets to love, you feel like basically the match is over. It seems to me at this moment he's turning that around. Even when he is two sets to love down, he is still trying hard. I think he has improved in that department."
That improvement, Kafelnikov said, is more a function of fitness than attitude.
"He spent the last 18 months on his physical strength," Kafelnikov said. "He has become a lot stronger."
Kafelnikov experienced firsthand Agassi's greater ability to hang tough and fight back in matches when they played in the U.S. Open semifinals last September. Kafelnikov won the first set easily, then succumbed to Agassi's onslaught in a 1-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 victory on the way to the title.
"I thought I had total control of the match, and that's where I was wrong," Kafelnikov said. "I did not expect he would come back and fight like he did. Now I will prepare myself for that. If I go for the quick start and win the first set, I know that it's time for me to raise my game to a different level, because I know he is going to try hard to level the match."
Kafelnikov shouldn't have been so surprised to see Agassi come back against him. Agassi did something similar in the French Open final three months earlier when he beat Andrei Medvedev after getting crushed in the first two sets.
Agassi's coach, Brad Gilbert, sat at courtside Friday, scouting Kafelnikov in the semifinal to see if there might be anything new in the Russian's game.
After two sets, Gilbert left, bored with a match that was as devoid of drama as the Agassi-Sampras match the previous night had been filled with it.
"I can't watch anymore," Gilbert said.
There is nothing about Kafelnikov's game that is different, nothing Agassi hasn't seen and overcome.
What would please Agassi most, though, would be a change in the weather from the cool, rainy days that have gripped most of the tournament. Rather than playing Kafelnikov indoors, Agassi wants it hot and sunny, just like his hometown of Las Vegas.
"42 degrees," Agassi said, using a Celsius figure that translates to 108 degrees Fahrenheit. "I would wake up with a big smile on my face."
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