Agassi will attempt to shape own destiny -- again
May 16, 2006
By Joel Drucker
We won't see Andre Agassi at the French Open this year. Months ago he opted to skip the European clay-court circuit, pragmatically willing to take the hit on his ranking points that's incurred by withdrawing from three Masters Series events and Roland Garros.
Yet little did Agassi imagine that injuries would also muddle his entire year. By the time he makes his planned (but uncertain) return to the game at the Wimbledon tuneup event in London next month, he'll have played only seven matches in 2006, compiling a desultory 4-3 record.
At the French Open in the late '80s, Andre Agassi arrived on the big stage. (Getty Images)
As Agassi sits in Las Vegas hoping for his body to recover, I wonder if he contemplates the revolution he began 18 years -- and half his life -- ago. That was the spring when Agassi made a superb French Open debut.
Already that 1988 season, he wowed fans across North America with his high-octane groundstrokes and compelling persona. But it was in Paris where he first delivered the goods on a grand stage.
It wasn't just that Agassi won five matches to reach the semifinals. It was the way he did so, thoroughly charming crowds with his clothing, his grunts and his groundies. "Hey, that's a pretty cute girl," Agassi said years later about the thin blonde he was back then, an ingénue in denim shorts who'd been the belle of the ball.
Paris was where Agassi faced tennis depths and heights. Two of his most painful losses occurred when he was upset in the '90 and '91 finals. But in 1999, Paris was the site for his most treasured victory when he took the title, coming from two sets to love down to beat Andre Medvedev. Added to that victory was the onset of his romance with that year's women's champ, Steffi Graf.
I won't use this space to conjecture about when Agassi will decide to retire. Why bother? Besides, no tennis player -- better yet, no athlete -- has shredded more predictions than Agassi.
What interests me most about Agassi is the way his concept of tennis is linked to his life -- and in turn, the way that understanding of the game has revolutionized the definition of what it means to be an athlete.
Agassi believes there is something elemental and austere about a tennis match. "Two guys in one place, trying to deal with each other and figure it out," he once told me. "Isn't that kind of what human beings go through every day?"
Given that Agassi's father and first tennis teacher, Mike, was an Olympic boxer, it's easy to see how Agassi sees the sport in a way that's simple, compelling, combative and introspective.
Ironically, though, for a good deal of Agassi's career he failed to understand what it took to compete effectively -- that is, to relate to his opponent.
"I was all about trying to hit flashy shots when I was young," he said. "Only later did I see that the game is more about breaking the other guy down and forcing him to miss."
Of course, the fact that Agassi was able to accomplish this with such a lethal forehand-backhand combo -- I'll contend it's the best in tennis history -- was helpful. But what mattered most to his tennis legacy is that in time he saw the light and became a far better player past the age of 29.
Off the court, Agassi has been somewhat of a pop culture revolutionary -- the dozens of Nike outfits he wore for much of his career, his hairstyles, his philanthropy -- the guy built a school -- and his catalytic impact as a box office draw in tennis' post-boom era. But I'm more drawn to another Agassi revolution.
We tend to think of athleticism as an innate attribute, as finite, out of our control and cast in stone as eye color. From the get-go, the willowy Pete Sampras was considered an "athlete." Jim Courier was a "grinder," Michael Chang a "thinker," Agassi a "talent."
Agassi didn't want to occupy a box. The seeds of rebellion had been planted in him as a teenager when his father shipped him from his cozy home in Las Vegas to the tennis boot camp of Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. Through much of Agassi's early career, he treated tennis with ambivalence, constantly backing away from the sport that had made him a millionaire.
But all that restless energy also made Agassi a seeker, a person not content to sit in one place. Early in his career, Agassi faded in long matches. He wanted to get stronger, so he began working with Gil Reyes, the strength and conditioning coach of the formidable UNLV basketball team. Though it took awhile for him to calibrate his body weight with his tennis game, in time Agassi's physique become exquisitely well-chiseled. In his late 20s, he made himself faster.
And all along, through various physical changes, through altering his diet, through changing his practice routines, Agassi grew increasingly smarter.
"I want to make myself a better athlete," he said at a time when he'd already won three Grand Slam titles and been ranked No. 1 in the world. "If you make yourself stronger, faster, more aware of what's going on out there, you make yourself a better athlete, and in time a better player."
And by the way, each of the three Agassi rivals mentioned above took similar steps to outstrip their classification. But probably none covered more emotional territory than Agassi, who over the course of his career went from an apparent wasted talent to an example of devotion.
The notion that no destiny is pre-ordained fits in nicely with a mantra Agassi recites about his school, the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy: "If you tell a child he's stupid," goes the Agassi line, "he won't become very intelligent. But if you tell him he's smart, and give him the tools to grow, who knows what can happen?"
Certainly, at 36, Agassi hopes that question can guide him through yet another attempted rebirth. Whether it will happen will surely be one of the more interesting tennis tales of the coming summer.
The new HBO documentary, Billie Jean King: Portrait of a Pioneer, is a superb, comprehensive look at one of the most important people in tennis history.
The star, of course, is King, who offers keen comments on everything from her tennis to her sexuality. It also includes exclusive -- and rare -- interviews with her parents and brother, former San Francisco Giants pitcher Randy Moffitt, and ex-husband Larry, as well as lively time-capsule glimpses into her life as a '70s celebrity, appearing on such programs as The Dick Cavett Show, Sonny & Cher and The Odd Couple.
But best of all is the action footage. Lest you think of King as strictly a revered icon, do note that she was a superbly engaging and effective player, keenly adept at volleying and movement. And as Bobby Riggs found out the hard way, she rose to the big occasion.