Tennis: Wimbledon 99 - The complex world of Andre Agassi

Wimbledon 99: A love-hate relationship to the game fires the only contemporary player to win all four Grand Slams
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LATE LAST year, I waited aboard a Boeing 747 to rendezvous with Andre Agassi, whom I would interview en route from Los Angeles to Washington DC. As I lingered by my seat in the first-class cabin, worried that Agassi might miss the flight, I couldn't help but overhear one of my fellow passengers on this "celebrity flight" whining to a flight attendant about the quality of in-flight vegetarian meals.

A few minutes later, just before our scheduled departure, Agassi and his manager, Perry Rogers, finally showed up. Agassi, midway through a career makeover, was carrying a paper sack from the airport McDonald's and an industrial-size plastic cup of, presumably, Coca-Cola.

So much for treating your body like a temple, I thought, amused. This world-class athlete would leave all that garbage to pasty-faced fellow travellers like the vegetarian in seat 3-B. But this was just another in a series of apparent contradictions that are not merely typical but probably definitive of Agassi. Another one can be found in the very way he walks across a tennis court, with that pigeon-toed gait that is both disarmingly childlike and alarmingly purposeful, or even the way he is capable of generating atomic power on the backhand side with a backswing that is the essence of abbreviation.

Over the next few hours on that flight, I was once again reminded that in so many ways, both large and small, Agassi is nothing if not unpredictable. You want constancy, go see a dedicated worker like, say, Greg Rusedski. You want consistency, go knock on the door of Pete Sampras. But if you want interesting - and who doesn't, in this age of the celebrity athlete? - then Agassi is your man.

So, while Agassi munched on a hideously unhealthy, deep-fried slab of "hashed browns" as we became airborne, he quickly convinced me that he was indeed re-dedicated to tennis. Oh, he had been in that psychological place before, and on more than one occasion - after all, this was the 28-year old who in 1994 had fallen out of the Top 30 and then became the first unseeded player since Fred Stolle in 1966 to win the US Open title; the same fellow who was ranked 141st in the world in late 1997, and then bounced back to finish 1998 ranked No 6 in the world.

What happened last year is that he ran out of calendar pages in his drive to either become No 1 again, or to win another Grand Slam title. No matter. His recent victory in the French Open provided fitting if slightly delayed "closure" to his most recent and significant comeback.

But this time, Agassi's resurgence was driven by different emotions than before. In his first resurrection, in 1994, Agassi was on the mend from wrist surgery and running scared, terrified that his career might be over: "I was deeply afraid that I would never know just how good I could be at this game."

But this second time around his only conscious motivation was a deep desire to have the game of tennis back in his life, even though he expected something less, and perhaps more realistic, from it. As he said, "I always admired people who were so caught up in what they were doing that their work took on a life of its own. For a long time, I hoped and expected that tennis would envelope me in this cloud and bring my whole life into focus - you know, solve all big questions and resolve all the big problems. When I had success but realized that it wasn't that kind of all-encompassing experience, I became frustrated with the game and second-guessed what I was doing pouring so much of my time and energy into it."

That realization crystallized in the most bitter of ways for Agassi following his loss to Pete Sampras in the 1995 US Open final, which Agassi entered with a career-best 26-match winning streak and a world No 1 ranking that he held for 30 weeks. But the loss to Sampras so devastated Agassi that afterwards he decided that the "emotional investment" required by tennis just wasn't worth the effort. By that time, Agassi also had been seeing his wife-to-be Brooke Shields for almost two years. He also discovered during his wildly successful summer of 1995 that his success was not helping his relationships, but making them more complicated and hard to manage.

Agassi played mostly on memory and won primarily on reputation in 1996, and it says something about Agassi the tennis player that he was able to win an Olympic gold medal while doing so. But by early 1997, as his April wedding to Shields approached, Agassi was turning to venues other than tennis for deep gratification.

Although countless people would kill to be in Agassi's Nikes, anyone who knows him well enough was hardly surprised by his vanishing act of two years ago - or at any other time, for that matter.

One of the things that makes Agassi so intriguing and downright different from all his peers, with the possible exception of Boris Becker, is that he has been an extraordinarily successful player despite always having had a love-hate relationship with the game. And players better reconciled to their professional identities - the Samprases, Rusedskis, Tim Hemans and Pat Rafters of this world - will tell you just how much of a liability that can be, and just how much talent you need to win at tennis while feeling the kind of ambivalence that Agassi has harboured toward the game almost from Day One.

Agassi remains equal parts thankful and resentful about the way his father Mike remorselessly drove him toward a career in tennis from the absurdly early age. And he has yet to forgive his former coach and surrogate father Nick Bollettieri for breaking off with him in 1993, ostensibly because Agassi was insufficiently dedicated to his career.

Agassi's interpretation of Bollettieri's dramatic action speaks volumes about him. He never for a moment thought that Bollettieri was trying to issue a career wake-up call, or taking a calculated risk intended to bring the best out of Agassi the tennis player.

To his protege, Bollettieri's message was simple: I don't care about you as an individual, I only care about you as a tennis player and a victory machine. It was the worst possible violation of Agassi's trust and expectations.

Still, in his mercurial and wayward career Agassi came to learn that repudiating the thing that he did best could be just as problematic as having naive or insupportable expectations of it. Great champions often find motivation in unlikely places, including their own subconsciouses - anything to keep the challenge fresh.

In the two years leading up to Agassi's win at Roland Garros, he was quietly driven by an urge and need to find just where tennis fit into his life. Those who know him could see the process unfurling in a variety of ways, some of which ultimately cost Agassi in his personal life.

The main sign of Agassi's unresolved relationship with the game was his decision to keep Las Vegas as his home base, even though Shields needed to be in Los Angeles to pursue a career that began flourishing with the success of the sitcom in which she stars, Suddenly Susan. If Agassi had folded his tents in the desert and settled into a cozy Beverly Hills way of life after taking his vows, chances are that his career would have disappeared into the black hole of photo-ops, Malibu parties, and fast times with new best friends.

Instead, Agassi remained planted in Vegas. And, despite all the easy hype about Vegas, the town Agassi inhabits is very different from the one tourists or high rollers experience. Agassi's Las Vegas consists of the strip malls and convenience stores, the fast-food joints and other, typical features of American suburban life. Agassi always has lived a quiet life in a rowdy and garish town.

Agassi also kept his support team intact. That inner circle principally consists of Rogers, the chief executive officer of Andre Agassi Enterprises, his coach, Brad Gilbert, and the publicity-shy, devoted man who brings out the best in Agassi the athlete, his physical trainer Gil Reyes.

When tennis players marry, a new order often emerges in their relations. But Agassi remained true to his coterie, and when the time came to turn the motivational screws, Reyes was ready with wrench in hand. It is unlikely that Agassi could have enjoyed such a thorough resurgence if had to build a new or realigned support team, because great tennis players thrive on the familiar, on trusted routines.

Ultimately, the continuity Agassi was able to maintain played a part in ruining his marriage - at least for the time being. Others have married the same woman twice, and Agassi admitted after he won the French Open that he talked with Shields every day during the tournament.

Agassi's desire to resolve his relationship to tennis, more than any simple love for the game, was powerful enough to carry him back to the very top. Now that he's there, perhaps he will turn to other relations that may not be quite as resolved as the court papers and media clippings indicate. The entire process showed just how utterly Agassi is - and is not - a typical tennis champion.

He can afford to eat badly because he draws plenty of nourishment from other, less conventional sources.

Peter Bodo is Senior Writer for Tennis magazine



November 1997: Agassi's decline is such that he enters the humble Las Vegas Challenger tournament. He loses in the final to Germany's Christian Vink.


February 1998: Agassi enjoys his best win for many months by beating world No 1 Pete Sampras in straight sets to win in San Jose.


March 1998: Agassi's rise continues with victory at Scottsdale and a place in the Lipton final against Marcelo Rios.


July 1998: Reaches the final in Munich and wins in both Washington and Los Angeles.


August 1998: A semi-final place at the Canadian Open and appearances at finals in Indianapolis and Basle establish Agassi's position back in the top 10.


November 1998: A fifth title success of the year, in Ostrava, followed by a quarter-final in Paris, leaves Agassi in his highest position of the year. He ends 1998 at No 6.


January 1999: The Australian Open ends in disappointment for Agassi, who is seeded sixth. He loses in the fourth round to Vincent Spadea, ranked 38 places below him.


February 1999: Agassi is defaulted in San Jose for directing audible obscenities at a linesman during his second round match against Cecil Mamiit.


March 1999: Retires in the first set against his fellow American Jan- Michael Gambill during their semi-final in Scottsdale and loses in the second round at the Lipton a week later.


May 1999: Wins his first tournament of the year, by beating Boris Becker in the final in Hong Kong, but his ranking continues to slip.


June 1999: Wins the French Open title, which improves his ranking by 10 places. It also makes him only the fifth man in history to win all four Grand Slams in his career. The last time the feat was achieved was when Rod Laver won all four in the same year in 1969.