Posted 8/28/2005 11:00 PM Updated 8/28/2005 11:17 PM
Agassi's plan includes winning the U.S. Open
By Douglas Robson, special for USA TODAY
Andre Agassi often talks about playing with "urgency." His words have never rung so true.
Andre Agassi practices in Arthur Ashe Stadium, site of the US Open tennis tournament, in New York, August 26, 2005.
A nerve condition in his lower back, a younger generation of talented opponents and most of all, Father Time, have tinged every Agassi appearance in 2005 with the thought it might be his last.
Yet none of these forces has conspired to make the ageless tennis icon less than a legitimate threat to win the 2005 U.S. Open, which begins Monday. It marks Agassi's 20th consecutive trip to New York, the only Grand Slam tournament he hasn't missed in two decades on tour.
"I prepare to be there under any circumstances, which in many years has been less than ideal," says Agassi, who plays Razvan Sabau of Romania in one of the two featured matches Monday night.
Two months ago Agassi and his advisers plotted his late-career assault on the record books. A few days earlier, the Las Vegas native had crashed out in the first round at the French Open.
At that late-May strategy session in Marin County, Calif., with coach Darren Cahill and longtime trainer and confidante Gil Reyes, Agassi decided to skip Wimbledon to focus on rehabilitating an inflamed sciatic nerve in his back. The decision had another focus in mind: Winning what could be the eight-time Grand Slam champion's last and best chance at the U.S. Open.
"In one sense, it was an easy decision to make because you have a good racehorse who is about to pull up injured, so you have to take him off the track and fix him up," Reyes says. "But it was tough to have to make it."
Playing at an age when most players no longer compete for major titles, the 35-year-old Agassi arrives eager to add to his legacy with a third Open title to go with those he captured in 1994 and 1999.
"It's hard for me to put it in context," Agassi says of his relationship with the bustling and sometimes unforgiving New York crowds. "I can say I enjoy playing there more than anywhere else in the world. When you step on the court there, regardless of how you feel, you always push yourself to get the most."
With the help of Reyes, Agassi — the modern recordholder with 59 Slam appearances — has remained one of the strongest and fittest men on tour.
Still, the husband and father of two won't predict whether this will be his final stint in New York.
"I don't know. I don't know," he answers. "I've been asked that every week for the last four years."
Among the rest
Agassi is not the favorite heading into the year's final Slam. That belongs to world No. 1 Roger Federer
But No. 7 seed Agassi is no dark horse. Despite his layoff after Paris and questions about his back, he returned to his preferred hardcourts this summer. He won his first tournament of 2005 — and 60th all time — in Los Angeles last month and followed up two weeks later with an appearance at the Montreal Masters final.
"Double A has a great shot at winning the Open," says Cahill, Agassi's coach.
Most consider him in the second tier of contenders with former U.S. Open champions Andy Roddick of the USA and Lleyton Hewitt of Australia. Also in the mix is world No. 2 Rafael Nadal of Spain, who with Federer leads the ATP Tour with nine titles (eight on clay, including the French Open).
"One thing about Andre," says ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert, who coached Agassi from 1994 to 2002, "never underestimate him."
King of New York
Agassi's trips to New York trace the arc of his undulating career. The young renegade with multicolored hair, earrings and denim shorts who reached his first Open final in 1990 struck a chord with fans — but it was often discordant.
Like Jimmy Connors, a five-time U.S. Open champ who rubbed fans the wrong way until he became wildly popular after his prime, Agassi has earned his place in the hearts of New Yorkers and vice versa.
"My relationship with the fans from early on went from not being well received to finding as much support there as I do anywhere in the world," Agassi acknowledges.
When he lost his first three Grand Slam finals in the early 1990s, the tagline for his marketing pitch with Canon camera, "Image is everything," took on an ironic bent. It seemed the kid with so much talent lacked substance. That was compounded by first-round exits in 1991 and 1993 at the Open, cementing his underachiever reputation.
He began garnering fan empathy when he won his first Open as an unseeded player in 1994, beating German Michael Stich in the final.
His flashy tennis, charisma and good looks didn't hurt.
In ensuing years, fans witnessed his on- and off-court triumphs and losses, as Agassi struggled through a high-profile marriage and divorce to actress Brooke Shields, watched his mother and sister battle breast cancer and plummeted to No. 141 in the rankings in 1997 — only to re-emerge in 1999 to win a second U.S. Open and claim the year-end No. 1 ranking.
"He understands that people work hard to buy tickets to see him," trainer Reyes says. "He's them with a racket, and they are him with a necktie."
Becoming more human
The fairy tale continued in 2001 when he married a tennis player with stature equal to his, Steffi Graf, and then fathered a boy, Jaden Gil, and a girl, Jaz Elle, all while continuing to compete at the highest level.
Andre Agassi serves to Gaston Gaudio during the recent Rogers Cup in Montreal.
His inability to focus on his tennis when his off-court life faltered further endeared him to the public and put his humanity into fuller view. Agassi went from showoff to statesman and easily became the most recognizable tennis player in the world.
"In the beginning, he did everything with the viewpoint of what's in it for Andre," says longtime rival and friend Jim Courier, who first ran into Agassi in the 12-and-under juniors and later trained with him as a teen at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida. "But he transformed himself from just another selfish athlete into a generous, caring, enlightened person, someone who ran away from responsibility and now dresses himself up in it."
Nine years ago, Agassi formed his charitable foundation to assist at-risk youth in Las Vegas. Four years ago, he opened the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, a charter school in struggling Las Vegas that has become a model around the nation.
"Some players win a lot of trophies, but few leave a mark on life," says Bollettieri, who has reconciled with Agassi after a falling out years ago. "Andre will leave a mark that will last longer than those who did more statistically because he had an impact on people's lives."
Agassi says part of his evolution, if one wants to call it that, was just growing up in the public eye.
"I think if any of us looked at ourselves 20 years ago we'd see a lot of differences," he says. "My career has been a long one, and it's been a full spectrum. It's been growing up in front of all the fans that I still compete in front of. For that I'm so grateful for how they've allowed me to grow not just on the court but also off the court."
A little bit of luck
For Agassi to hold the trophy on the final Sept. 11 in Arthur Ashe Stadium, he'll need some breaks and a bit of luck.
His draw is decent, with a possible quarterfinal showdown with Nadal and no chance to meet Federer until the final. But observers say he will have to come through the early rounds relatively unscathed. Too many tough matches early on could wear Agassi down.
The weather is another variable. When he lost the 2003 Open semifinal to Spain's Juan Carlos Ferrero, several days of rain had forced Agassi to play three matches on consecutive days. That lack of recovery time could spell doom, especially with his back a question mark. Last year he was a whisker away from beating Federer in a quarterfinal match that was played over two days because of rain and heavy winds.
Mum on future
If this is Agassi's final stint in Queens, he is not tipping his hand.
"For me, it's been about seeing through this year and assessing things from there on," he says, echoing his commitment to play out the season. "I really don't allow myself to think too much about (retirement) because it detours me from the task at hand."
With eight major championships, 60 ATP titles and a top-10 ranking in numerous statistical categories, Agassi's place in tennis history is a lock. More than any American player of his generation — more than Pete Sampras, Courier or Michael Chang, the other members of the Fab Four — Agassi has given wattage to tennis.
"There has never been a player with such a transforming effect on the sport over such a long period of time, and there are literally hundreds of players on tour now who have jobs because of fans and sponsors that he brought into the game," says the top-ranked American and 2003 champ Roddick, who is seeded fourth.
"For me, he's been a much bigger influence off the court by the way he carries himself with professionalism and dedicates his life to his foundation and the academy."
Andre Agassi forever