Agassi at peak of arrogant artistry

American icon:The game's most charismatic player is a chameleon who can be an angel or an angry young man
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Which Andre will he be? You never ask which Pete he will be. Or which Greg or Tim or Pat. Pete Sampras will be pretty much the same at the tennis tournament we, his fellow Colonials, call "Wimpleton". Slouching on and off Centre Court, he gives no indication by his reluctant body language of the destruction-wreaking man within.

Timothy (Our Tim) Henman, and Gregory (Sort-of-Our-Greg) Rusedski will be duty-bound for the net, and looking grim and uptight because... well, wouldn't you be, too, with what's left of the British Empire on your back like a Gibraltarian Barbary ape? And Patrick ("Sorry, mate!'') Rafter will be enjoying himself, having fun on this his possibly last time around.

But Andre? Andre Kirk Agassi of the Las Vegas Agassis, probably the most beloved of the lot, never presents us with quite the predictable look. You wonder if he is yet seething over his Parisian débâcle at the hands of Bill Clinton and another chap, a diminutive local named Sebastien Grosjean? If Parisians thought he would exit Roland Garros as graciously as he departed Melbourne Park in January by bowing and blowing kisses to all corners -- in the Agassi performance style -- they were startled and disappointed. He slunk off cursing the fates, his opponent and perhaps even frogs' legs and other things French. Within minutes he was delivering himself of a curt and surly press conference as unlike his previous colloquies with reporters as coq au vin and KFC. A sample:

Q: "Was it a surprise to you that Bill Clinton was at the match?" A: "I didn't know he was there."

Really? Strange that 16,198 other folks in the arena did. They could also see that, after stomping Grosjean in a 6-1 first set, Andre was a bit casual in not trampling the Frenchman deeper into the crimson dirt. Whereupon the encouraged mite raised his game mightily to raze Andre's reverie of a second French Open.

We thought that Andre, the one-time scamp grown into a thoughtful young man of numerous charitable pursuits – the latest being the construction of elementary schools – was well past the unprofessional and boorish conduct of that chill and gloomy quarter-final afternoon. The chill had apparently gotten deep inside, into his soul and bones, the defeat as painful as any experienced. His comportment was a reflection of how much it hurt. I think it was the dream of a Grand Slam, punctured like a soap bubble.

Clearly Andre is playing at the finest level of his 31 years. He has agreed with that assessment: "I've put together everything, the physical and mental, the shot-making, the execution, the experience better than ever. I have a few options. I might have nothing that can stand out beyond, but I can hit well off both sides. I was one of the first that could step up and hit the backhand in both directions.

"I can kind of do everything, hit a variety of shots -- high, low, deep short. My serve is better. So's my volley. It allows me to construct a point more than a guy who might just play through somebody. I don't run; I sprint!"

Undoubtedly, he could see himself in the French final against the champion, Gustavo Kuerten, and by winning would have come into London halfway to that most cherished and remote of tennis prizes: the Grand Slam (as Jennifer Capriati has). The quintessential quadrilateral has been travelled by merely two men: Don Budge in 1938, most recently Rod Laver in 1969. Wasn't Laver also 31 then? Hadn't Andre already mastered Wimbledon and the US Open, and didn't he know how to do it again? Moreover, doesn't one of the three female Grand Slams, the last in 1988, belong to his room-mate, Steffi Graf? Wouldn't it have been sweetly unique to have a pair of Slams enhancing their interior decor? It isn't to be, and it isn't very realistic to think there will be another such opportunity. "Out, damned Grosjean!'' Andre must still be muttering.

All this doesn't mean that Andre doesn't mean to win the Big W for a second time. He might have by now if Sampras hadn't scorched Centre Court with the most withering fire seen there two years ago, immolating a stoutly resisting Agassi for the title, 6-3, 6-4, 7-5. Or if Rafter hadn't played the Wimbledon match of his life, beating Andre in their magnificent five-set semi-final 12 months ago.

Which Andre will it be was also the question a decade ago when the prodigy reappeared in SW19 after an absence of three years. It was really his debut because that 1987 start on an outside court amounted to nothing more than an unnoticed cameo of a 17-year-old terrified not by switchblades but grassblades.

"Henri Leconte took me apart fast. I don't think it lasted an hour,'' Andre recalls the 6-2, 6-1, 6-2 runaway with a smile. "I didn't know what to do. I didn't want to come back – and I didn't. It was a mistake to miss those years.'' By 1991 he had been a US finalist and twice a French finalist. He couldn't duck the lawns any longer. But the problem with Andre and Wimbledon did not lie with such trifling details as seedings, which have exercised so many minds again this year, even though they have been bloated to 32. "I don't give it a thought," he says. "Stick me anywhere. All I know is I have to win seven matches."

No, the fans, the press, and the Championships' committee were preoccupied with – Gadzooks! What would he wear? He had been a mobile colour chart for so long – pinks, purples, blacks, blues, golds. Sometimes with matching fingernails. His blue jeans shorts had enraged numerous purists including Philippe Chatrier, president of both the French and International Federations who felt that Andre's heretical costumes should be banned.

Andre responded by calling Chatrier "a bozo".' The All England Clubbies were quaking, remembering the 1972 contretemps over little Rosie Casals' nifty little dress adorned with violet squiggles. The frocked-up Casals was ordered to leave Court One and change to the prescribed "predominantly white'' raiment forthwith. Presumably, the offending gown was sent to the Tower to be drawn-and-quartered.

How would Andre tweak them? Would he even be Godivan -- a future emperor newly clothed? But his entry to Centre was outrageously ordinary, a let-down after all that build-up. Peeling off his track-suit, he revealed himself dully in pristine alabaster from cap to plimsoles. "I just wear a lot more simpler now, classy yet chic,'' he says.

His regard for Wimbledonian tradition has only increased, and he was perhaps more unbelieving than anyone else when the first of his seven majors was rung up on Centre, in the five-set thriller over Goran Ivanisevic in 1992. "I hoped I'd win Wimbledon some day but I thought it wouldn't be possible for a long time -- certainly not the first of the four.'' If he were to win again Andre would equal the tournament's longevity record -- a nine-year gap -- of his countryman Big Bill Tilden, the victor in 1920-21 and once more in 1930.

"Wimbledon,'' Andre says, "takes knowing. Like the French, it's a surface that you just feel. The court changes. With the weather and with the wear. If you can get to the second week you get comfortable with it and your game. I have to find my comfort level, and that takes a while. It's going to be more mental here than physical with the shorter points.'' In his 11th coming to the Elysian field marked off in netted rectangles, which Andre is he this time? Champion or loser? For him there's nothing in between.