Tennis: Invigorated Agassi joins Slam elite

American bald eagle soars to the French Open tennis title after casting aside distractions.
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DURING THE 1990 French Open, Andre Agassi, then of the long peroxide tresses, referred to the president of the International Tennis Federation as a "bozo" after the administrator objected to his black, blue, white and "hot lava" pink shirts and denim shorts over pink cycling tights. How ironic that Agassi, almost a decade later, should win the first slaphead Grand Slam singles final of the open era.

We must be more respectful. The Ukrainian Andrei Medvedev was not the first balding fellow to play with Agassi during the European clay court season. That distinction fell to Prince Albert, of Monaco, who participated in a hit-and-giggle doubles on Court No 7 at the Monte Carlo Open on 19 April to publicise Agassi's signing of an extended deal to use a titanium racket made by Head.

It was not one of Agassi's greatest hits. Next day, the 29-year-old from Las Vegas withdrew from the tournament without playing a match, saying that an injury to his right shoulder had flared up again. Seasoned observers shook their heads.

Agassi, it seemed, was being Agassi again. So much for his build-up to the French Open, the one major title to have eluded him, denying him the prestige of becoming only the fifth man in the history of the sport to win each of the four Grand Slam singles titles.

A month later, after losing to Australia's Pat Rafter in straight sets in the third round of the Italian Open, Agassi cut a pathetic figure in the interview room, his naked torso partly covered by a towel draped over his left shoulder and tape strapped across his chest and dodgy right shoulder. "I played like a schmuck; I am a schmuck," he said.

Those were not Agassi's sentiments on Sunday. Agassi, being Agassi, had recovered a two-set deficit to overcome a devastated Medvedev and place his name alongside Fred Perry, Don Budge, Rod Laver and Roy Emerson.

"It almost feels like it had nothing to do with me," Agassi said, still choking back tears of joy. "It's almost like it was just sheer destiny."

Destiny, perhaps, was also responsible for dragging the bald eagle down to No 141 in the world rankings 18 months ago. Or maybe that had something to do with injuries, complacency, or a lack of self-esteem.

"I wasn't confused as to why I was going down the charts," Agassi said. "I had other things going on in my life that were very important to me, and I wasn't putting the same focus and intensity and work into my tennis. It is not something I'm proud of, but I can't deny it.

"I got to one point where I was quite embarrassed just to be on the court, because I couldn't compete nearly on the same level. I was forced to make a decision inside my own heart and mind as to what I'm going to do.

"Am I going to get back and continue to play, or am I going to stop? Because I can't possibly come out on the court with everything that I've experienced and feel the way I was feeling. It wouldn't be right for me. It wouldn't be right for the game.

"It wasn't a difficult decision. I knew I had more tennis in me. I wanted to start over again. That's exactly what I had to do."

Agassi's fleeting visit to Monte Carlo in April came only days after the confirmation that his two-year marriage to the actress Brooke Shields was over. He said it was not a tragedy and that he had no regrets.

Asked on the eve of last Sunday's final if settling his personal life had brought his tennis forward, Agassi said: "I would hate to give the impression that that's the case, because that would mean that during the beautiful years that I shared with Brooke that it somehow interfered with my tennis.

"I think we constantly make choices in life. The choice that I made in my personal life was a very important personal decision. But the one I made with my tennis was also a very calculated, specific decision: just to continue maximising the things I still feel like I can accomplish. I'm definitely really focused on my tennis."

Such decisions, it would appear, separate the Grand Slam champions from the schmucks and the bozos.