Agassi comes full circle
By PAUL BAUMAN
Few athletes have changed as dramatically during their careers as Andre Agassi.
As Agassi attempts to make his latest comeback at the elderly tennis age of 36, he is in many ways the opposite of the Agassi who 20 years ago this month won his first tournament as a professional.
Agassi has evolved from a boorish, shaggy-haired teen heartthrob who crushed virtually every ball to a bald father of two, tennis ambassador and humanitarian who wears down opponents on the court with precise groundstrokes.
Part of it is maturity and longevity. Agassi turned pro earlier and has remained competitive longer than almost anyone in men's tennis history. But with Agassi, everything has always been magnified.
The one constant in Agassi's career has been the almost supernatural hand-eye coordination that eventually will secure his place in the Hall of Fame alongside his wife, Steffi Graf.
Agassi has done virtually everything in tennis. He has:
_ Won each of the four Grand Slam singles titles, becoming one of only five men in history to do so.
_ Reached No. 1 in the world rankings (1995 and 1999).
_ Won an Olympic gold medal (Atlanta, 1996, in singles).
_ Played on three Davis Cup championship teams, including the United States' last one in 1995.
_ Won the year-ending tournament featuring the top eight players in the point standings (1990).
Those were distant goals when Agassi arrived in Reno for the 1986 Nevada State Open a few days after turning pro.
The Las Vegan had entered the $10,000 tournament only as a favor to his older brother, Phillip, a marginal pro who needed a doubles partner.
Ranked No. 285 in the world in singles and rising fast, Andre was coming off a grueling five-week satellite circuit in Florida and South Carolina. He had hoped to take two weeks off but figured that if he was going to play doubles in Reno, he might as well play singles, too.
Several tennis sources had projected the younger Agassi as a top-10 player in the world. Before the tournament, the brothers submitted to a 30-minute interview on the deck of the host Lakeridge Tennis Club overlooking Reno.
Andre was still in his rebellious stage (he had once shown up for a match wearing jeans, hightops and makeup). He had a two-tone mullet (radical in those days), and the nail on his right little finger was about an inch long and painted red.
Things got even more unusual once the interview began. Even though Andre was the focus, Phillip did almost all the talking. Andre spoke three sentences.
Aloof? Perhaps. Deferring to his older (by seven years) brother? Maybe. But rude? No. Andre looked the reporter straight in the eye and listened intently.
On the court, as I wrote in a 1997 unauthorized biography of Agassi, he "amazed fans at the Lakeridge Tennis Club with his explosive shotmaking, amused them with his baggy tennis shorts and two-tone punk haircut, and alienated them with his petulance."
The Agassis lost early in doubles, but the third-seeded Andre won the singles title. A weary Agassi struggled, though, in the thinner air of Reno's 4,500-foot altitude _ which favored serve-and-volleyers, not baseliners. He survived four consecutive three-set matches before the final.
Agassi's behavior, though, was abysmal. He drilled balls against the fence, berated opponents and suggestively put a racket between his legs. Yet never was he penalized.
There were no problems in the final, however, as Agassi demolished 10th-seeded Doug Stone, 6-3, 6-2 in 50 minutes.
On the men's circuit, Agassi gradually harnessed the powerful game his Iranian-born father, Emmanuel ("Mike"), had taught him. Agassi's manners eventually improved, too, although it took more than 10 years.
Along the way, Agassi overcame several major obstacles. He was labeled a choker after losing his first three Grand Slam finals, underwent career-threatening surgery on his right (playing) wrist in 1993 and slumped to No. 141 in the world rankings in 1997. Agassi also has a strong social conscience. He has raised more than $52.3 million for the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation, founded in 1994 to benefit at-risk youth in Las Vegas. In 2001, the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, a charter school for at-risk youth, opened in West Las Vegas.
Agassi is trying to put off retirement for a few more years. Sidelined in March because of chronic back pain, he is skipping the clay-court season to focus on what could be his last appearance at Wimbledon. He plans to return to the circuit in the Stella Artois Championships, June 12-18 on grass in London.
Undoubtedly, even Reno tennis fans will be rooting for him.
(Editor's note: Paul Bauman covered the 1986 Nevada State Open tennis tournament, won by 16-year-old Andre Agassi, as a sportswriter for the Reno Gazette-Journal.)