Tennis: Search for the player within

Andrew Longmore finds that for Andre Agassi the inner battle is growing desperate
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Writing off Andre Agassi has been a national pastime since the little boy with denim shorts first came out of Florida thumping the Bible and tennis balls with equal verve 11 years ago. Suspicion of Agassi has stretched from his dress sense to his serial absenteeism but, above all, from the confirmed belief that he is that most loathed of American sporting types, the quitter.

John McEnroe was not universally loved outside his native New York, but an excuse for his outrageousness could be fashioned from his transparent commitment. With Agassi, the tantrums have too often seemed orchestrated, childish, commercialised. He stands accused of being false, which might be a compliment for someone raised in Las Vegas but is deemed unforgivable in the less gilded cages of smalltown America.

There has therefore been more rubbing of hands than gnashing of teeth at the spectacular decline of the former Wimbledon champion, who, barring another doctor's sick note, will begin his first grand slam tournament for 12 months against Steve Campbell, a wild card, at a spanking new stadium in New York City in the first round of the US Open tomorrow. In fact, as defeat has tumbled upon defeat, surprise has been replaced by a deafening indifference. Agassi's absence at Wimbledon, the result of a niggling wrist injury, was barely noticed. No one really expected him to show up anyway. Nor would anyone be dumbstruck if the world No 131 beat the world No 59 tomorrow. Defeat would simply add Campbell to a distinguished list of Agassi's recent conquerors: Gustavo Kuerten (twice), Javier Sanchez, Scott Draper, Magnus Norman, Justin Gimelstob, Doug Flach.

Between reaching the semi- final in San Jose in February and the quarter-final in Indianapolis 10 days ago, Agassi had won just one match in eight tournaments. Even for a man capable of losing to anyone in the world on his day, whose career has lurched from peak to trough, this was the stuff of despair. From being the world No 2 at the start of 1996, Agassi slumped to No 74 on 11 August, his lowest since 1986. "He just looked dazed, very demoralised," Joe Lynch of the ATP tour recalled after escorting Agassi to another post- defeat press conference in Cincinnati three weeks ago. "He'd been run off court and he couldn't understand why."

Agassi has been too cavalier with his talent in the past to elicit much sympathy from press or players now that it has been more than temporarily mislaid. Three grand slam titles - Wimbledon, the Australian and US Opens - and a spell as world No 1 in 1995 have been interspersed with long periods of retreat, of ballooning weight and flagging commitment. Even before Brooke Shields gave him another reason to stay at home, trips to Europe prompted mystery ailments, widely diagnosed as travel sickness. His itinerary still has a distinctly hometown feel to it; he has not played a tournament outside the US this year.

Not surprisingly, rumours of retirement have been rife. Agassi is 27. Borg retired at 26, McEnroe took a long sabbatical at the same age and Agassi's search for past glories has become increasingly desperate. For perhaps the first time in his life, he is missing tennis. In Cincinnati he arrived in his private jet five days before the start of the tournament and stayed on several days after his first-round loss to practise again. His fitness is not in question nor, surprisingly, his desire, but Agassi's whole tennis life has been spent trying to balance instinctive genius with the more prosaic virtues of hard work and consistency, with varied success.

"I can go from a Sherman tank to covering a lot of real estate in a matter of days or even minutes, depending on my confidence or my ability to pick up the ball and believe in the shot I'm playing," he said in Indianapolis recently. "I'm pretty instinctive and that's why my confidence tends to affect me slightly more than maybe the average athlete."

Agassi's whiplash game, honed by his father, who endlessly smacked serves at his 10-year-old from mid-court rather than behind the service line, has never encouraged consistency. It is based on fast hands and feet, on hitting the ball breathtakingly early, depriving his opponent of time. It is a hard way to play every day. The problems mount once the flow of winners dries and the confidence dips. Defeat by that wily old pro Mark Woodforde, in the quarter-finals at Indianapolis, highlighted Agassi's uncertainty. The Australian played on Agassi's nerves with a series of low sliced backhands which cut through a swirling wind. Meat and drink for Agassi on a good day.

"Usually when he hits that slice I can manoeuvre him off court a little bit then hurt him and make him go for more," Agassi said. "He could never get away with hitting three in a row because he would feel behind in the point, but I couldn't get him to feel that way because I wasn't really hitting with confidence. I gave myself a margin for error, I was too conservative."

The more relevant question now, one which might be answered in the next two weeks, is whether Agassi still has the ability to flick the switch of his genius, as he did to such devastating effect in winning Wimbledon in only his 13th match on grass, or whether advancing age has dulled the reflexes and reduced him to the ranks of the average. Woodforde, for one, has no doubts. "You just can't give him an inch because if he gets his momentum going, he can blow anyone away," the Australian said. "It doesn't matter what he's ranked, he is a dark horse for the Open." He won it, in 1994, ranked 20, won Wimbledon as the 13th seed, so anything is possible. But for how much longer? Agassi, as ever, has the answer.

"I've been written off six times in my career already and six times I've been back. I'm looking forward to making it seven."