Tennis: Even Stich falls to the charm of Agassi: Larger than life character wins friends besides US Open title with a show of maturity based upon subtle skills

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The Independent Online
IMAGINE the globe as a fluffy yellow ball on the shoulders of an unshaven, unkept, frequently unsuccessful but seldom uninteresting athlete, and there you have the world of tennis - Andre Agassi, game, set and match - as perceived by many of the people who promote the sport and watch it.

Thankfully for all concerned, he has come good again by adding the United States Open to the Wimbledon title that he won two years ago.

J Howard 'Bumpy' Frazer, president of the United States Tennis Association, proclaimed Agassi 'the most popular tennis player in the entire world' after the unseeded Las Vegan's 6-1, 7-6, 7-5 victory against the fourth- seeded Michael Stich in Sunday's final. Bumpy should know. He spent the past fortnight on the Stadium Court at Flushing Meadow, either appearing with some of the best or doing seemingly interminable solo spots on the microphone, the highlight being Rod Laver Day, when it was tempting to enquire, 'Who's that with Bumpy?'

Stich was not impressed by Bumpy's observation - 'a stupid comment; Andre is famous, and there are lots of good players out there, so don't take one guy out of it just because he won the US Open' - but even the testy German admitted to being charmed by Agassi, in spite of having the ball belted at him during the decisive game of the third set.

'Standing out there next to him,' Stich said, 'he was just like a little kid; didn't know what to say, didn't know what to think. He was just so happy. I just think he's a nice guy. He wasn't able to cope with all the things people brought up to him. Everybody was trying to make his image: companies, television people, ATP, players, whatever. And I think the image he has is not the person he is. To get rid of that is a very, very difficult thing for a young man, and he seems to be able to do it now a little bit better.'

Todd Martin, who in the semi- finals became the fourth victim on Agassi's record run through five seeds to become the first unseeded champion since Fred Stolle in 1966, was also won over. 'This guy is a superstar,' Martin said. 'He's ridiculously large. He can dress up in goofy clothes on television and make commercials and people still like him.'

Crucially, the 24-year-old Agassi has proved capable of winning another Grand Slam championship, only his second in five finals dating back to the 1990 French Open. Though he continues to be sponsored from head to toe, he seems to have matured since the days of the 'image is everything' sales pitch. 'I'm sorry how everybody took that slogan,' he said.

He recounted the frustration of being a showman without a winning act. 'I used to step on the court and I'd walk around and step on these land-mines of words like 'expectation' and 'potential', and those things used to destroy every ounce of desire I had to go out there and just do what it is I love.'

That was before he triumphed at Wimbledon, the sport's most prestigious tournament, one that he used to shun. 'Nothing can touch the dynamics of everything that was going on when I won Wimbledon,' he said. 'The fact that I had never won a Grand Slam; the fact that nobody believed I could play on grass and nobody believed I had the heart to get through a tough match in the championship rounds. That was the most special thing I have ever been through. But winning this (the US Open) has it's own place. It is really the greatest thing I could experience after Wimbledon.'

Injuries and an apparent lack of commitment contributed to Agassi's lack of success between Wimbledon '92 and Flushing Meadow '94. Nick Bollettieri, of coaching academy fame, ended their long association after last year's Barbra Streisand Wimbledon, and a brief period of tuition from Pancho Segura, one of the old school of pros, was terminated after a first-round defeat by Sweden's Thomas Enqvist at last year's US Open.

A wrist operation in December put Agassi out of the game for two months. Shortly after his comeback, he enlisted the help of a fellow competitor, the Californian Brad Gilbert, whose success with a limited talent prompted Agassi to describe him as 'as big an over- achiever as I have been an under- achiever'.

'The most important thing I try to stress to him is strategy,' Gilbert said. 'I think if you go out and play 100 per cent of your capabilities with poor strategy, you can lose. If you go out with 60 per cent of your capability with a good stategy, you can win. Nick (Bollettieri) was never into stategy. He felt like if you went out and played well, good things can happen.'

Agassi began to shape as a new champion in the making here last week when he out-manoeuvred and out-stayed Michael Chang, the resilient retriever, in the fourth round. In the final, he complemented spectacular returns and splendid ground strokes with a variety of serves, the accuracy and subtlety of which lured Stich into making errors.

'Brad has brought an element to my game that I have never had,' Agassi acknowledged. 'I actually believe now that not only can I overcome my weaknesses, as far as being mentally focused and determined, but I can actually become stronger than most of the guys that I play.

'It has always been said that I have the game to have more than one Grand Slam title, I have the game to be No 2 to Pete Sampras. I think the game has always been there, and mentally I have never allowed it.' His mind turned to golf to borrow a metaphore: 'It is like hitting the greens but not sinking the putts.'

Motivating Agassi has made a mark on Gilbert, who said he would have an ear pierced if his protege won the Canadian Open, which he did, and agreed to shave his body hair should a Grand Slam be accomplished. 'I'm not getting a razor; I'm getting clippers,' Gilbert said.

Brooke Shields, who has replaced Streisand at Agassi's courtside, hugged and kissed the hero and was persuaded to follow him into the interview room for questioning. 'This is so strange,' the actress said. 'A press conference at the US Open.' Not so strange, really, in the world of a player who described his quest for the championship as 'a dream slowly becoming a fantasy'.

There was one jarring note. While Sampras and Martin have been persuaded to forget their ailments and rally to serve their country in the Davis Cup semi-final in Sweden, Agassi is off on an exhibition tour with John McEnroe.

The new champion views this as missionary work. 'This exhibition tour is very important to me,' he said. 'Tennis has taken a fall. That is the bottom line. It is my way of making all the effort I can to somehow keep it alive. I will always come back to Davis Cup. Right now it has taken the back seat to some of my priorities.'

How heavy is that fluffy yellow globe? 'I don't feel pressure. What I give the game and what I do for the game is solely based on me and who I am, not on anything I need to continue acting out. I think the game is going to survive, whether I am around or not.'

(Photograph omitted)