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cover story: september 2005
Inside Tennis calls the newly minted frosted flake from Nick Bollettieri’s factory “a punishing punk with a fabulous forehand. “ Never mind any past probs with alcohol and marijuana, John McEnroe contends, “No one has ever hit that hard against me. The way he clocks his forehand — phenomenal.” So we put the 16-year-old on our Top Four list of hot young prospects (along with the long-gone Mikael Pernfors, Andrei Chesnokov and Miloslav Mecir.) But the kid’s U.S. Open “journey of a thousand miles” begins with a single misstep, as he crashes out in four sets in the first round amid the Open’s outer- court distractions to Britain’s less-than-imposing Jeremy Bates.
‘A HAIRCUT AND A FOREHAND’
He’s both America’s young (“save us from another all-Czech U.S. Open final”) hopeful and the tour’s dazzling darling. But while Andre proudly sports a year-end ranking of No. 2, he is confronting public scorn, private demons and erratic play. Lendl claimed he was “just a haircut and a forehand,” and after a wretched midsummer loss, Andre threw away his rackets and told his people that he was never going to play again. Whatever! Unfortunately, what the “hair apparent” did do was again lose in four sets in the first round of the Open to yet another European, Henri Leconte. Ouch!
THE DAWNING OF THE AGE OF DENIM
Sure, a skinny German kid name Steffi, who would later play a bit of a role in his life, was winning the Golden Slam. But so what? Mr. Agassi was busy changing the tennis landscape as he woke ‘em up at the country club and orchestrated the dawning of the age of denim. The game would never be the same. Kids hoisted Andre posters. Parisians stormed his court. Never mind that he responded to a question on South American culture by asking, “What’s an Inca?” — the ATP was getting 2,000 letters a week for Andre. So there was ample hype when kid Agassi was to meet the exalted Jimmy Connors in the quarters. Not surprisingly, when Andre glibly predicted he would win “three, three and three,” Connors bristled and shot back, “That’s a bad mistake. ... I enjoy playing guys who could be my children. Maybe he’s one of them. I spent a lot of time in Vegas.” But Andre did almost exactly what he predicted, winning in straight sets (6-2, 7-6, 6-1) while losing precisely nine games.
‘I’M GOING TO GIVE HIM SOME PAIN’
Oh-my-god, the sky is falling. While freshly anointed French Open champ Michael Chang was celebrated as the first of the Fab 4 Americans to win a Grand Slam, the slumping Agassi won just one small tournament, as critics howled that he wasn’t mentally tough, couldn’t beat top players, was out of shape, skipped too many Grand Slams, didn’t prepare well enough and was a tin man without a heart. “In one short year,” John Feinstein claimed, “he went from being the delight of the tour to its mystery player. He had become the most blatant tank artist in the game and didn’t seem the least bit bothered.” Even after his one great victory of the year - yet another U.S. Open quarterfinal win over Connors - there was criticism. During the first five-set win of his career, an odd 6-1, 4-6, 0-6, 6-3, 6-4 triumph, two ballboys claimed they heard Andre call out to his brother, “I’m going to take him to five [sets] and give him some pain.” Later, after noting Andre’s 19 unforced errors in the third set, Mike Lupica claimed, “Agassi purposely wanted the match to go five sets to prove that he could win a five-set contest.
‘IMAGE IS EVERYTHING’
It’s just another (pink is out, chartreuse is in) season as Andre debuts his controversial “Image is Everything” campaign for Canon, launches many an F-bomb, spits toward an ump, has a nasty spat with a volunteer driver, is called a bozo by the ITF prez and accrues hefty fines for racket abuse. Andre’s future coach Darin Cahill would say, “What comes out of his mouth is of little significance,” and Newsday’s Barbara Matson imagined how Andre prepared for a match: “Hot-lime statement liner pants: check. Black acid-washed shorts: check. Black-and-white shirt with hot lime: check. Black-and-white shirt with hot lime sleeves: check. Turquoise, lime and white headband knotted in place: check. Gold earring in left ear: check.” Oh yeah, Andre did win the ATP Championships, led the U.S. to its first Davis Cup title since ‘82 and reached (but lost) both the French and U.S. Open finals. Agassi admitted that his 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 loss to Sampras at Flushing Meadows “was an old-fashioned street mugging.” And so began a trend.
DOES HE EVEN CARE?
Now the only one of America’s Fab 4 not to have won a Grand Slam, Andre suffered his third first-round loss at the Open, this time to Aaron Krickstein (who went on to famously become Connors’ fabulous foil), as Jimbo pranced his way to the semis. No wonder unsparing British writers sported T-shirts that announced, “Agassi Diddled While Connors Sizzled”. Sports Illustrated was even harsher, playing up the differences between the two: “Old versus young. Substance versus style. Never were the contrasts between how much Connors means to the game and how little Agassi cares about it so obvious.” But that wasn’t really it. A taller and stronger Andre, who had just gained 26 pounds, had suffered his third straight Grand Slam final loss at the French Open, this one to Courier, his former pal from the Bollettieri stable. The dramatic defeat was so devastating that Andre was again considering quitting, and, despite reaching the Wimbledon quarters, was still reeling by the time of the Open. Still, fans wondered when Mr. Pizzazz was going to walk the walk.
‘THAT WAS ZEN, THIS IS NOW’
Skeptical Andre-watchers didn’t have to wait long. At Wimbledon, Andre fell to his knees in ecstatic disbelief as he won the crown. With a Grand Slam title on his mantle, the U.S. Open proved to be more about Barbra and Buddhism. Not surprisingly, when IT asked Streisand — tennis’ hottest new fan — who her favorite player was, she slowly lifted her arm in a studied manner, paused and whispered in awe, “Oh, Andre. He’s a Zen Master.” Later, she told TV reporter Michael Barkann that Andre had called her after seeing The Prince of Tides, and they talked for two hours. “He’s very, very intelligent, very, very sensitive, very evolved; more than his linear years. ... He’s a kind human being, and that just amazes me.” Mike Lupica zapped back, “If Agassi is an extraordinary human being, then Capriati is well on her way to the Nobel Peace Prize.” Tony Kornheiser added, “I thought Zen was about humility, and it didn’t come in hot lava shorts and a frosted ponytail. But hey, that was Zen and this now.” Okay, giggle at the Zen koan commentary, but slowly something vital was happening. Andre the florescent kid was taking his first steps on a long and winding yellow brick road of transformation.
A YEAR OF LOSS
Andre loses his chest hair. He loses his coach Nick Bollettieri, and he loses face when Sampras becomes No. 1 and jokes, “Nobody should be ranked No. 1 who looks like he just swung from a tree.” Suffering tendonitis in his wrist, his ranking drops to No. 24, he gains eight pounds and loses again in the first round of the Open. Surgery saves his career.
BROOKE, BRAD AND BIKES
Maybe it was his new coach, Brad Gilbert. Maybe it was his new girlfriend, Brooke Shields, or maybe it was all the lowered expectations. In any case, Agassi — unseeded and ranked No. 20 — swept past Chang, Thomas Muster, Todd Martin and Michael Stich to at last claim his first U.S. Open title. Then again, maybe it was because the inexplicable basher often falters when he’s supposed to win (remember the ‘90 and ‘91 French finals) and wins when he’s supposed to falter (think Wimbledon ‘92). The New York Times captured his postmatch delight, noting “He was behaving with the giddy aplomb of a kid who’d just mastered the art of riding his two-wheeler.”
HUMANITARIAN OR LOCKER ROOM DEMON?
Folks are noticing changes in the newly minted Aussie Open champ. No, it wasn’t just that he pulled off the most dramatic (pre-James Blake) hair change in tennis history. No, there was something else about the increasingly reflective and giving guy who had just created the Agassi Foundation and quietly contributed $1 million to Vegas’ Boys and Girls clubs. While Andre told IT that he had “a new, new attitude, “ Sports Illustrated noted, “The hyped twerp with the hair that looked as if it had been poured from a soda fountain has answered every critic and has become a 24-year-old of substance and accomplishment.” Of course, never underestimate the power of talk therapy. Andre explained, “I came to terms with my tennis and my childhood and my dad, and it just released me. When you finally get a little objectivity, you don’t take it so personally.” On court he became No. 1 as he won 26 straight summer hard-court matches. But Boris Becker was biting at his heels, claiming that Nike was getting Andre favors and that he didn’t hang out in the locker room, practice with the guys and wasn’t well liked. Worst yet, in the Open final, Sampras won a key 22-stroke first-set rally and served the lights out to again prevail 6-4, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5. Andre reflected, “I went 26-1 this summer, and I’d give all 26 to get that one back.”
SQUISHY IN THE HEAD?
Wuz goin’on? A fan claims “Brooke is making him squishy in the head.” Bollettieri speculates that Andre might fear getting married. In any case, he is booed off courts in Monte Carlo, Paris and Munich and kicked out of Indy for swearing. Plus, he and Brad Gilbert indulge in a nasty (“you can’t play in my sandbox”) spat with Thomas Muster and his camp, which sort of includes Princess Fergie. The enlightened exchanges feature such reflective thoughts as, “Probably his mother doesn’t even like him,” “He’s just so cocky, so arrogant. Every time you mention his name, I get sick.” And, of course, Andre’s immortal claim, “If Muster is No. 1 at the end of the year, I’ll allow him to sit in the Royal Box and bow to me.” Amid the brouhaha, Andre did manage to become the first American guy to win the Olympic Gold in singles since ‘24, and he did beat Muster in four at the Open. But some said his listless (“where’s the fight”) 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 loss to Chang in the Open semis was disgraceful and stood in marked contrast to Sampras, who famously lost his lunch while “gutting” out a key winning-ugly match over Alex Corretja en route to the title.
WILLING TO PAY THE PRICE
There he was, the game’s most charismatic star, an icon and hero to millions, out on a back court at UNLV, behind a chain-link fence like a thousand other wannabes, playing an anonymous first-round match in a Challenger without a ballboy or network camera in sight. Again hobbled by a wrist injury that flared up just after he married Shields, Agassi’s ranking had fallen to No. 141. Still, he was willing to pay the price, playing glamorless Challengers in Vegas and Burbank. Yes, he was a no-show for the poignant opening-night ceremony for the Open’s new Ashe stadium, and eventual champ Pat Rafter took advantage of Andre’s big-match rustiness to dismiss him in the Open’s fourth round. Still, you could argue that, along with Andre’s tireless charity work, his Slam triumphs, Olympic gold and Davis Cup heroics, his vanity-free willingness to go down to the game’s no-frills minor leagues to retool was one of his finer moments.
‘FROM IMAGE-IS-EVERYTHING’ TO ‘TENNIS-IS-NOTHING’
On the rebound, Andre’s five titles enable him to make the biggest one-year jump into the top 10 in ATP history (from No. 120 to No. 6). But, everywhere, there are signs of midlife crisis. By the end of the season, it will have been almost 3 years since Agassi has reached a Slam final. He announces that he wouldn’t play Davis Cup if it were held in his Vegas backyard and says his financial future depended more on the stock market than his tennis. So it’s no wonder that Tim Keown wrote that Agassi’s career went “from image-is-everything to tennis-is-nothing.” At the Open, he moonballs and mocks the very beatable Czech Karol Kucera before suffering his second straight fourth-round loss.
‘HE COULDN’T BEAT MY MUM. HE’S FINISHED’
What a dismal start. Andre is booted out of San Jose for swearing. Brooke explains that she would see Andre just three weeks a year, and they would be divorcing, and Brit Davis Cup coach David Lloyd announces, “Agassi couldn’t beat my mum now. He’s finished.” But just months later, he not only started dating the love of his life, Steffi Graf, the day after she won the French, he scored the sweetest triumph of his own career, winning Roland Garros to join Fred Perry, Budge, Emerson and Laver as the only men to win all four majors. OK, he lost the Wimby final to Pete (not exactly a wretched result), raced to the U.S. Open final and (with his Greta Garbo-like love watching from seats in the upper ozone) survived eight break points against Todd Martin to score a 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (2), 6-3, 6-2 comeback win. His second U.S. Open title helped him to finish the year at No. 1 for the first time, and his dignity and thoughtfulness impressed more than ever. Sports Illustrated’s S.L. Price noted, “After 11 years marked as much by flameouts and Taco Bell runs as by streaks of on-court brilliance, Agassi became a man in full this year.”
‘CLEARLY OTHER THINGS ARE IN PLAY’
Need some evidence on whether Andre is the most intriguing player in the game? Well, check this out. When asked whether she finds Tim Henman intriguing, the head of the Henman Fan Club said, “No. I find Agassi fascinating.” And certainly part of his intrigue are his “Kerry-esque” flip-flops. After winning the Aussie Open (his third major in four attempts) and leading the U.S. to a first-round Davis Cup win in Zimbabwe, you figure the guy’s going to really dominate. Wrong. Australia would be the last title he’d win this year. After a passionless second-round U.S. Open loss to Frenchman Arnaud Clement, Andre appeared before the press with a vacant expression. With both his mom and sister battling breast cancer, it was easy to understand. His agent and pal Perry Rogers explained, “There are clearly other things in play.”
‘NEVER HAVE I SEEN A BUZZ LIKE THAT’
“I’m most proud,” he told IT, “when I feel totally lost on court, when I feel alone, when I feel like I don’t know if I can do it anymore, and I still tell myself, ‘run and work and try.’” Facing Pete in the Open quarters in their most memorable nonfinal confrontation, Andre worked his archrival big time. And, before the biggest crowd to ever see a men’s tournament match, he didn’t once drop his serve. But it wasn’t enough, as Andre went down in four scintillating tiebreak sets. How exciting was it? Well, when IT asked USTA marketing whiz Arlen Kantarian what has been his favorite U.S. Open moment, he responded: “Pete versus Andre, quarterfinal, nighttime, under the lights, 20,000 people. Never have I seen a buzz like that in a stadium for a live sporting event.”
PETE VS. ANDRE: THE LAST CHAPTER
It was Ted Williams blasting a Fenway homer in his last at bat; Michael Jordan hitting a “death-to-the-Jazz” jumper to win his final NBA Championship. It was Lance Armstrong winning his seventh Tour de France before peddling off into the sunset. Sampras, who hadn’t won a tourney in 26 months and had a dismal summer, played sublime serve-’n’-volley ball to down his greatest rival 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 in the Open final to gain his 14th Slam and to cap his best-in-history career. Yeah, Pete threw Agassi a swell bone, saying, “I’ve needed Andre. He’s pushed me and forced me to add things to my game.” Still, there was little consolation for Agassi, except the eventual realization that Pete would no longer be around to deny him titles. After all, Agassi knew the stats. Pete was undefeated in their four U.S meetings. Pete won six of their nine Slam finals and led the rivalry 20-14. Still, Agassi, now a father, was gracious, saying, “I’ve played some of my most memorable matches against Pete and come out on both sides. We’re opposite in everything we do. It allows for many aspects of the game to reveal themselves. Every point, something special seems like it’s going to happen.”
‘LET’S SEE WHAT YOU’VE GOT, BIG BOY’
Since he was the last of the Fab 4 still on the circuit and was now the oldest player ever to hold the No. 1 ranking, it’s hardly surprising that many began to tease Andre. Courier claimed Agassi had been thinking about retirement since he was 7, and when Andre jokingly confronted Roddick, asking, “Let’s see what you have, big boy,” Andy shot back, “Hair.” Agassi himself insisted there was no problem on court and that he felt old only “when I’m pulling hair out of my ears.” With a new coach Darin Cahill by his side, the Aussie Open champ reached the semis before J.C. Ferrero knocked him out of the Open and off his perch atop the rankings.
‘THE LAST UNSOLD PUPPY IN THE PET SHOP’
As in his youth, critics again were shrill. Some noted, “Since Agassi married Steffi, he’s had more kids than Grand Slam titles “ Others observed, “Agassi, of the limpid eyes, looked like the last unsold puppy in the pet shop ... [and] displayed the foot speed of a man twice his age.” But so what? Three generations of Agassis were on hand at the Open as Pops took on his fifth generation of foes. And in the quarters, Andre seemed about ready to outpunch Federer, the best of the new breed. But just in time, as is his wont, Roger raised his level as play was suspended. The next day, amid gales and dust storms, you would have expected the crafty Las Vegan vet to thrive. But it was the precise young Swiss who adapted, while Andre was hesitant and unsure in a painful 6-3, 2-6, 7-5, 3-6, 6-3 loss. Limping down the hall after his defeat, his problematic back seemingly acting up again, the vanquished warrior pondered the thought that, had the match not been suspended the night before, he might have pulled out the last two sets with the rowdy night crowd behind him. “Yeah, well, we’ll never know.”
2005 — ?
© 2005 INSIDE TENNIS All rights reserved.