Tennis: Brain behind the natural brilliance

Ronald Atkin says the Brad Plan has freed Agassi's full talent
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The Independent Online
RIDING THE distance with Andre Agassi for the last five years on his very own rollercoaster has been the man they call the Beej. The nickname is drawn from Brad Gilbert's initials and the Beej has been soaring of late, along with Agassi's Grand Slam fortunes.

But the coach who followed what he calls the DRM approach ("Don't Rush Me") throughout his own playing career has not been exercised to any noticeable degree by Agassi's stunning successes at the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. Delighted, yes. But punching the air, never. Just not Brad's style.

Beej wrote a best-selling book called Winning Ugly, which is a passable description of the playing style which won him 20 tournaments, but together Agassi and Gilbert have been producing beautiful moments in tennis, not that the coach seeks praise of any description.

"I don't consider myself a coaching genius," he said, at ease in the players' lounge at Flushing Meadows in the aftermath of his employer's victory last weekend. "Double A [his own nickname for Andre] is out there playing for himself. There are no Svengalian geniuses among coaches. When Tony Pickard coached Stefan Edberg, Tony said, `We did this and we did that.' That's bull. You have to go through the player's eyes and abilities. The only reason that I look like a good coach is that Andre is a phenomenal player."

Gilbert and Agassi came together in the spring of 1994 after Andre had suffered the humiliation of being sacked by his long-time coach, Nick Bollettieri, and an experiment with the old-timer Pancho Segura had proved disastrous. At the Lipton tournament in Key Biscayne, Agassi invited Gilbert to dinner. "I thought it was just a friendly offer but he asked me if I thought I could help him," Brad recalled. "I said, `Yes, I think I really can,' and we started the next day. People thought it was pretty intriguing, kind of a Frankenstein thing, to put my head on Andre's body. They also thought it odd to hear me talk about teaching Andre Agassi what it takes to win. After all, by the time he called me he had already won Wimbledon and reached four Grand Slam finals.

"But the problem for Andre was that he wasn't maximising his potential. He hadn't been exposed to much match-play strategy. He firmly believed it was enough just to play well. My belief is that if you play to the best of your ability but you don't have a good strategy you'll only win 60 per cent of your matches. If you have a great strategy you'll win plenty of matches, even if you don't play that well. But if you play to the utmost of your ability and you execute a great strategy, the sky's the limit."

The pair were soon reaching for the sky. Within six months Agassi had won the US Open and, another four months on, the Australian. But just before the US Open there was a serious dip, called by Gilbert "rock bottom". Agassi lost to the New Zealand journeyman Brett Steven in Washington.

Gilbert's instinct was to get his man out of the stadium fast, away from the disaster scene, but Agassi insisted on staying to sign every autograph for the waiting crowd. "After such a tough loss that was an incredible thing to do. But, beneath all the hype about his image, Andre is a humble guy. He's genuine. To me, that's the sign of a warm heart and good things happen to people with warm hearts."

Agassi's second dip, almost two years ago, was altogether more spectacular. Most people only noticed in November 1997 when the recently married Agassi was suddenly down at 141 in the rankings and playing a challenger event in Las Vegas in pursuit of points. "But I knew by that stage he was on a comeback," Gilbert insisted. "He had already committed to the fact. The real low point had been in the summer at Stuttgart when he lost to Todd Martin and the crowd booed him.

"But Andre has the most amazing talent and it was just a matter of time before he was going to start playing well again. It was not as if, at 27, he was too old. He worked his ass off and I told him to keep his head, keep working and good things would happen.

"Last year the big thing was getting his ranking back. This year the emphasis was going for the Slams and he has worked harder for that than he ever did. In the first three months he got in unbelievable shape. But then he got injured, first his shoulder and then a hamstring, but he kept a good attitude and it all came back at the French."

So what is Gilbert's role in this flood tide of success? "I scout the opposition for him tremendously well, we discuss matches, I always hit with him, do whatever it takes. We strategise really well. But let's face it, I don't hit the ball like Andre. It's what he can do, not what I can do. His backhand down the line is his most awesome shot. It's his Liquidator. I've never seen a guy his size get so much stick on the ball. Now that he has added discipline, focus and consistency, everything has come together.

"Andre has so much God-given talent there is no point being satisfied. For the next two or three years he can do a lot more damage. Guys like Rios, Philippoussis and Moya, who looked like they were going to step up, have moved aside. I don't get caught up in hype but he could win all four Grand Slams twice and move higher on the greatest-ever list."

That was a prospect which made the Beej rub his prominent, stubbled chin and smile very hard.