By Ian O'Connor USA TODAY
9/5/2005 10:41:00 PM
Andre Agassi is lucky to be the old man on the other side of James Blake's net. As a fresh running rebel out of Vegas, a silly boy in perpetual search of a clue, Agassi might never have made it to a quarterfinal pairing with Blake in the U.S. Open lights, not when bailing on a five-set match with Xavier Malisse would have been the most attractive option on the board.
Image is hardly everything in the world of Blake, a Harvard man one season removed from a broken neck, the cancer-caused death of his father and a bout with shingles that made a jigsaw puzzle of his movie-star face.
A young Agassi would stand little chance in that world. A 35-year-old Agassi kind enough to build a school for children in need and secure enough to marry a woman who almost tripled his number of Grand Slam tournament titles might actually have a prayer.
"Andre has chiseled away the things from his character he wished to get out of the picture," said his longtime trainer and part-time father confessor, Gil Reyes. "He had to prove his substance, and he has."
Substance. The way James Blake is stealing America's heart, you're not beating him without it.
In the bad old days, when Agassi was Barbra Streisand's temporary cabana boy, a Zen master lost in a metaphysical daze, he would've been steamrolled by the feel-good aura of Blake, who comes complete with a personal cheering section that outnumbers your average Ivy League football crowd. But this isn't the Agassi who once plunged to No. 141 in the world rankings and played in a Challenger event, the Agassi once fired through the mail by Nick Bollettieri, the Agassi who once blew off the Arthur Ashe Stadium dedication ceremony to catch a movie.
This is the Agassi who traded James Bond sports cars for family-of-four minivans. This is the Agassi who has won 75 U.S. Open matches, the Agassi who could look positively Jurassic in the third and fourth sets Monday, look like just another broken-down champ with a bad back, and then unleash a fifth-set fury on a younger man who never knew what hit him.
Would a 19-year-old Agassi have had the fortitude to win this match? "That's a great question," Reyes said. And one with an easy answer: no shot.
"Andre is a stronger, more fit athlete than he was at 19," Reyes said. "Mentally stronger, too. Even when the shots weren't there against Malisse, he kept his foot on the gas. That's why I'm very proud of him. No matter how tough the match gets, he's not giving in. You're going to have to beat him."
When Agassi first showed up unannounced in Reyes' UNLV office in 1989, he was a skinny kid who had just lost in Rome. Andre told Jerry Tarkanian's strength and conditioning man that his legs had turned to jelly in the final set and that he never wanted to go down that way again.
Reyes told the kid he didn't know the first thing about tennis. "I do," Agassi said. The wide eyes and easy smile won over the trainer, who told Agassi he could start pumping iron when Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony were through.
Sixteen years later, Reyes still cries over the fact that Agassi named his son Jaden Gil. The trainer remains that familiar barrel-chested figure in the player's box, and Agassi remains that familiar pigeon-toed figure in the shadow of a bigger talent. Pete Sampras has been replaced by Roger Federer. In his 20th Open, Agassi was the longest of shots to see Federer in the Sunday final, his back having betrayed him in Paris.
But after refusing to touch a racket for four weeks, passing on Wimbledon and engaging in two hours of weight work every day, every week, Agassi has resurfaced as the oldest Open quarterfinalist since Jimmy Connors turned this event on its ear 14 years back. Sampras made this kind of run here before heading off to be a dad.
"It's just not in our plans yet to retire," Reyes said.
Agassi has too much going for him to quit right now. He has Steffi Graf in his corner. He has a school in Las Vegas that majors in hope for the underprivileged.
"He's really a true gentleman," Blake said of Agassi, "one of the friendliest guys in the locker room. ... He's someone that you can tell your kids to look up to and be proud of it."
Way back when, Connors would've never said the same. But Agassi has changed plenty more than his sneaker affiliation from Nike to Adidas.
A foolish boy has grown into a responsible man. In the image-is-nothing world of James Blake, Old Man Agassi stands a fighting chance.