Can Wimbledon bring the best out of Agassi again?

It has been a bad year, but the champion of '92 may yet surprise his critics, writes Bud Collins
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The Independent Online
As the Big W looms, the Big Wonder is on. What has happened to Andre Agassi?

At the French Open last month, overweight and unmotivated, he was well beaten in the second round by a journeyman called Christopher Woodruff. Sporting his latest look (the Bruce Willis cueball coiffure), Agassi had died easy, rolled into a side pocket - and he didn't want to talk about it.

Ducking the mandatory press conference brought a $2,000 fine, but he could not avoid the question that has come to dominate the tennis season: has the Glitz Kid become the Skids Kid?

Thus far, Agassi is having as bad a year as John Major and Bob Dole, as flat as his belly isn't. Search the record for a really good win, and you find one: a January rebound from 0-2 in sets to beat Jim Courier at the Australian Open. Then only to lose despondently to Michael Chang while blaming the wind.

A first-round loss to Luke Jensen at Memphis must have been a dive worthy of Greg Louganis.

Agassi has won one tournament - the Lipton - because the other finalist, Goran Ivanisevic, woke up that day with a neck as inflexible as his on- court thought processes and quit after a few unproductive swats.

What are the reasons for this mid- tennis-life malaise? His rival Pete Sampras thinks it dates back nine months to the September afternoon at Flushing Meadow when he deposed Agassi as the US champion, 6-4, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5. Maybe even to "The Point" - their brilliant all-court give-and-take, point-and-counterpoint barrage that Agassi seemed to win several times as it lengthened. Yet it concluded on Sampras's roaring crosscourt backhand on the 19th stroke.

That was a stroke of doom, closing the first set. Later, scripted as the unkillable point, it was reconstructed and preserved as a droll, memorable Nike commercial, now more renowned than the match itself. "Andre hasn't been quite the same since then," Sampras said. "Something seemed to go out of him. But you can't write him off. He's still got the best forehand, the best backhand, the best return of serve that I've been up against."

Pancho Segura, who coached Agassi briefly, shakes his head. "Too much money. It's a shame he's wasting all that talent. For a while, he got it straight, but now he doesn't seem to know what's more important - competitiveness or commercials. He isn't keeping them in the right perspective."

Not that everyone regards Agassi as in permanent decline. One friend said: "Andre's an every-other-year guy: '92 Wimbledon, '94 the Open, and '96 will be big yet." His tailor, the Nike tennis rep Ian Hamilton, agreed. Conceding that Agassi was not ready for Paris, he said: "Andre will come into Wimbledon concentrating. He's one guy I don't worry about here. This is major major. Remember what Wimbledon means to him. They said he'd never win a Grand Slam, and in '92 he wins the most unlikely of all, Wimbledon. He'll be eager, all right."

Agassi's coach, Brad Gilbert, the author of Winning Ugly, a how-to tennis treatise, saw his pupil losing ugly in the French Open and shrugged, "Just a bad day at the office." But Centre Court isn't another office. It's the executive suite.

Agassi, who turned down invitations to the US team in 1988 and 1992, has made much of his desire for an Olympic gold medal, pointing himself toward Atlanta. But, thanks to his early departure from Paris, he's had nearly a month to re-tool. His trainer, Gil Reyes, says a different Andre will be unveiled when the Championships begin.

We can only wait and wonder. That's the eternal mystique of Andre, he of the showbiz fizz. Even when you can get the boy out of Vegas, you can't get Vegas out of the boy.

AN ENDURING AFFAIR: WHAT AGASSI SAYS AT WIMBLEDON

`I am really kind of sad, because the sport has offered me and my life so much and this tournament has offered me and my life so much. It is a shame that I didn't respect it a little earlier.'

After winning the title in 1992

`I came out here today, and it was the second best feeling of my career. The first one was winning.'

On returning as champion in 1993

`It's not a problem to come out here and defend the Wimbledon title. It's an honour.'

Again in 1993

`The first day you asked me all about tennis. I thought, "There's something wrong here." '

Suspicions prove well founded in 1993 as journalists spend most of the press conference quizzing him on why he removes his body hair

`The longer I play on grass, the worse I get.'

In 1994, before going out in the third round

`It's something extraordinary for me. Every time I come here the emotion starts. I've grown to love it." In 1995

`I know this is a personal question, but are you aware that your shorts are slightly transparent?' Reporter to Agassi in 1995

`No, but apparently you are.' Agassi to reporter

`I'd sooner have afternoon tea than watch Boris. I've seen him playing plenty of times.'

After winning his quarter- final, before losing to Becker in the 1995 semi-final

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