Court jester's break point

close-up; Andre Agassi; The great showman searches for a purpose as a turbulent year comes to an undignified end. Simon O'Hagan reports

In The Bercy district of south-east Paris, the industrial dockland of an earlier age, there are two focal points on which huge crowds converge. One is the Gare de Lyon, the other the vast indoor Bercy arena, the Parisian equivalent of Earl's Court in London, but different in that it is circular rather than oblong and, bizarrely, has grass growing up its outside walls. It is best known as a rock venue, and something of the rock concert atmosphere prevails there when, as Bercy does each autumn, it plays host not to REM but to the giants of world tennis.

Screaming and shouting and stomping and hand-clapping - during points, not just between them - is typical Bercy behaviour, rarely seen on the other side of town at Roland-Garros, where the French Open attracts an older, more respectful audience. Not all the players like it. When the 11th annual Open de Paris took place at Bercy last week, the people in the seats, 14,000 of them, got in on the act every bit as much as the ones on court.

Boris Becker, never short of an excuse for fouling up, compared Bercy to a zoo and blamed the crowd's antics for his early exit at the hands of the fast-rising Carlos Moya of Spain. France's Cedric Pioline fell victim to his compatriots' fickleness and got into trouble when he made an improper gesture to them as a response to the rowdy support they gave to his opponent, the popular Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov. The more po-faced members of the tennis-playing elite, which is most of them, clearly disliked performing in front of people with their own idea of what constitutes a good time.

There is one player, however, for whom Bercy might have been made and who might have been made for Bercy. Alas for the crowd, not to mention the organisers, Andre Agassi wasn't around long enough this year to reacquaint himself properly with the people who had thrilled to him when, on his last appearance in the event, in 1994, he beat Marc Rosset in the final.

But Agassi's defeat, in his first match, at the hands of Sweden's Magnus Gustafsson was more than just a temporary disappointment for player and public. Coming a week after he had been knocked out at the same stage of a tournament in Stuttgart, towards the end of a year in which, by his own admission, he has "really struggled", it begged the question whether, at 26, Agassi has it in him to get back to where he was 18 months ago when he had just won successive Grand Slam titles - the US Open of 1994 and the Australian Open of 1995 - and, for the first time in his career, reached No 1 in the ATP world rankings.

The Agassi who was on top then was himself a revived version of the one who, after reaching three Grand Slam finals and winning Wimbledon between 1990 and 1992, had suffered a wrist injury in 1993 that put him out of action for three months and was indirectly responsible for his dropping to No 32 in the world at the start of the following year.

Agassi's comeback was remarkable, and nobody any longer doubted that there was substance beneath the showmanship. But the mental energy required to stay at the top for long periods has been beyond him, as he indicated last week. "When I get completely focused about tennis, it's very consuming to me. I dream about it. It's difficult for me to go year after year."

Agassi's present difficulties date back to that extraordinary match at Wimbledon in 1995 when he lost to Becker in the semi-finals after leading 6-2, 4-1. Shattering though it was at the time, Agassi might have got over it two months later had he managed to defend successfully his US title in the final against Pete Sampras. It was Sampras whom Agassi had beaten in Australia at the start of the year; to do it again would be the mark of a great champion. But he couldn't, and defeat gnawed at him. "That was definitely my most disappointing loss," he says. "I would be happy to trade all my other wins for that one."

As a result, this year was always going to be a challenge for Agassi, and for the most part, it must be said, he has not been up to it. He has found a new nemesis in Michael Chang, who beat him in the semi-finals in both the Australian Open and the US Open, while an unconsidered American, Chris Woodruff, did for him in the second round of the French, and another, Doug Flach, ended his Wimbledon interest in the first round. Even by Agassi standards, there was something particularly feckless about these defeats, and he went on to disgrace himself in Indianapolis in August, where his abuse of an umpire was followed by disqualification.

Agassi has had successes, but they have carried a slightly hollow ring. He won the Lipton in March when Goran Ivanisevic withdrew injured from the final three games after it started. And although he takes great pride in his Olympic gold medal, the competition was thin. He has also had various injuries, and if reports are to be believed, the distraction of his engagement to Brooke Shields has been increased by disputes with his future mother- in-law over the wedding arrangements.

There may be nothing unusual about Agassi in that respect, but it is the loss of what makes him so special as a player that is most noticeable. "The difference now is that he's not moving as well," Gustafsson said of his match in Paris with Agassi. "That's what he has to work on. I was down 3-1 in the third, but you know when you play Agassi that if you keep fighting it will come to a certain point that he gives you a couple of easy games, and that's what happened."

One hesitates to say this of a player with such wondrously instinctive gifts, but the time has come to apply himself. "He's been working out which direction to take his tennis," said Phillip Agassi, his brother and manager, from Las Vegas last week. "He just hasn't found one yet."

Certainly Agassi needs to give himself more of a chance. Before Stuttgart two weeks ago, he had played no tournaments since the US Open in early September. He agrees that didn't help. "Hindsight is 20/20. But the year is over for the most part. The Grand Slams are over with. For me to come over here to play three weeks in a row after a very tough year is difficult."

Now Agassi is waiting to see if he will qualify for the ATP World Championship in Hanover later this month, an event that brings together the top eight in the rankings. At No 7, he is in danger of missing out. If he really cared about that, he would go for more points in Moscow or Stockholm this week. But he's back in the States.

Phillip Agassi still thinks of his brother as a champion. "He knows what he has to do, and he'll do it. But if you put Andre's career on a chart it would look like the stock market - one year up, the next year down." You wouldn't want to buy shares in Agassi at the moment.

High points and fault lines

1986: Turns pro; in US Open, his first Grand Slam event, loses in first round.

1988: Semi-finalist at French Open and US Open. Breaks into world top 10.

1990: Reaches first Grand Slam final, losing to Andres Gomez in French Open. Runner up to Pete Sampras in US Open final. Wins ATP World Championship.

1991: Runner-up in French Open. Long awaited return to Wimbledon after his only previous appearance, in 1987, ended in first round. Reaches quarter- final.

1992: Upsets odds to become first baseliner since Bjorn Borg to win Wimbledon, beating Goran Ivanisevic in final.

1993: Loses in first round of US Open. Surgery on right wrist.

1994: Comes back to win US Open, beating Michael Stich in final.

1995: Makes it successive Grand Slam titles by beating Sampras in Australian Open final. Ranked number one in the world for first time. Wins seven titles in all, but loses to Sampras in US Open final.

1996: Wins Olympic title, but loses in semi-finals of US and Australia, in second round of French and first round of Wimbledon. Slips to number nine in the world. Announces engagement to Brooke Shields.

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