KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- Andre Agassi, Roger Federer and Serena Williams are on the rise as tennis makes the springtime switch to clay.
Agassi showed he may be poised for a big year on clay by grinding out victories over Federer, Nicolas Lapentti and Australian Open champion Thomas Johansson en route to winning the Nasdaq-100, his fifth title on the Key Biscayne hardcourts.
"For me, I need to establish my game on the hardcourt, then go into the clay working hard and willing to pay the price," Agassi said. "I certainly feel ready for that, and I think it's going to mean some good things."
Agassi's next tournament will be the U.S. men's clay court championships in Houston beginning April 22, which starts his preparation for the French Open five weeks later.
Federer showed he also could become a Grand Slam contender this year. The 20-year-old Swiss beat No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt in the semifinals, and after a slow start gave Agassi a handful before losing 6-3, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 in Sunday's final.
"He's got a great game, and he's still learning how to play," Agassi said. "He's going to only get a lot better. I see him as definitely being a threat for one of the best."
Serena Williams won the women's title, beating the world's top three players in succession - two-time champion Martina Hingis, three-time champion Venus Williams and top-ranked Jennifer Capriati in the final.
"It's definitely a pretty big milestone," Williams said. She cleared a mental hurdle in the semifinal by besting her older sister for only the second time in seven meetings, and for the first time since 1999.
Richard Williams had a good tournament, too, and not just because one of his daughters won the event for the fourth time in five years. The enigmatic Williams has made headlines in the past at Key Biscayne but this time kept a low profile, although he did tell Florida Tennis magazine he recently wrote 10 books, filmed two movies and sold his bus company for $6 million.
In decline is the stock of Hingis and Pete Sampras.
Hingis endured another drubbing by the Williams sisters, losing to Serena 6-4, 6-0 in the quarterfinals. Their once-fierce rivalry has become so lopsided that when they met at the net afterward, Williams offered Hingis a consoling pat on the back.
Serena Williams has beaten Hingis three consecutive times, and seven times in a row on U.S. hardcourts. Venus Williams has won five of her past seven matches against Hingis, including their most recent meeting at Key Biscayne last year.
Sampras' two-year slide reached another low when he lost to qualifier Fernando Gonzalez in the third round. That made it 24 tournaments in a row without a title for Sampras since he won a record seventh Wimbledon championship in July 2000.
"I suppose it's inevitable at some point," Agassi said. "Who's to say why? I don't know what he's feeling or what he's thinking when he's out there. But I'd say his movement is more off than anything."
Tournament founder Butch Buchholz pronounced the event a success in its first year as the Nasdaq-100 Open, but its stock with CBS could be higher. The network showed the women's final on tape delay, and skipped the first seven games of the second set because it had allotted only two hours for the match.
"It could have been worse. It could have gone three sets," Buchholz said. "One of the things we hope to accomplish in the next three to four years is that we're not going to have to beg for the time."
The tournament was formerly the Ericsson Open and before that the Lipton Championships. Nasdaq will remain the title sponsor next year, but there may be other changes.
Buchholz wants to start the event a week later and expand the draws from 96 players to 112 or even 128, the same as at Grand Slam events. Matches would then be played over 13 or 14 days instead of the current 12.
"I think this tournament is maturing to the point we can handle two weeks," Buchholz said.
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