How the grass just grew and grew on Agassi

He is back on top of the world and believes it is his duty to carry on. Alex Hayes meets a man of passion
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The Independent Online

Andre Agassi usually has the look of a tortured soul, a little boy lost who cannot quite believe what has happened to him over the last incredible 17 years on the Tour. But do not be fooled; Agassi is bright, witty, fully aware of his success and, most of all, blessed with an elephant's memory.

Ask the 33-year-old whether he can recall any specific moments from his Wimbledon victory in 1992, and the American just smiles. For a moment, you sense he is about to dismiss the question, and then this happens: "I wouldn't say I remember every point," he says in that quiet way of his. "I remember a second serve on set point that caught the chalk up the middle of the ad court; Goran [Ivanisevic] serving 6-5, second serve, thought I was going to get a double there and it dropped in.

"Broke first game of the second, held out for the set; broke first game of the third, held out for the set. Then he finally broke and 6-1 in the fourth. And I remember 2-2 down break point, serve out wide, forehand approach, chipped lob, I put away the overhead... and 4-5, I remember that game pretty well: double fault, double fault, beautiful way to start. And then I hit a good second that was actually close to missing; almost doubled again.

"Missed the next serve in the net, he swung the return out wide; 30-30 I hit a second serve, I returned to his feet, he half-volleyed, I ran in, forehand pass; and I got a good return on match point, second serve. So, no... not very much."

In case you had not noticed, Agassi lives and breathes tennis. Forget the glamorous image, this is a passionate man. He is passionate about his sport, and passionate about his new family. Home life for Agassi is being a husband to Steffi Graf and a father to Jaden Gil.

On the circuit, his raison d'être is to push back the limits of the sport. Not content with being only the second player in the Open era to win all four Grand Slam titles, he has now knocked Lleyton Hewitt off the top perch to become the oldest No 1 in the history of tennis. Not bad for the kid who used to be teased because he was too small and "weird" looking.

"It's moments like winning the Australian Open [in January] that make me realise it has all been worth it," he says. "People ask me whether I am considering retirement, but my belief is that if I can still do it, even potentially, then it feels like an obligation, a responsibility to myself and to the game, to carry on. I owe everything to what happens out there inside those lines, and I appreciate that more and more as I get older."

The same is true of Wimbledon, a tournament that held few happy memories for Agassi early in his career, but has since become a firm favourite. "When I was a kid," he recalls, "there was a lack of interest there. I didn't have any desire to be on the grass, I didn't feel like it was tennis. I remember feeling like it was inconvenient in my schedule."

His first match was what he describes as "a short experience, probably an hour and seven minutes on Court No 2 against Henri Leconte". Agassi swore he would never return, but eventually decided to get back in the saddle. "I got older, I guess, and I started being aware of what Wimbledon is, what it means to the sport and what it means to your own career. The actual challenge of playing on the grass got addicting."

So does he firmly believe that grass still has a place in the calendar? "If it wasn't for Wimbledon, no," he replies honestly. "I think Wimbledon is sort of an event in itself: it has its own magic, its own place, its rightful place. But I think Wimbledon makes the grass more than the grass makes Wimbledon.

"Grass highlights the shot-making side, but you sort of end up skipping the strategic part of things. Then Wimbledon comes into the equation, and it's a whole different thing. To be out there is the greatest feeling in the world."

No one appreciates this more than the lady in Agassi's life. Graf is one of the few tennis players with a better record than her husband. In fact, she has so many trophies that Agassi says she does not know "where half of them are". "My seven Slams are in my gym at home and serve as a reminder to me of what it is we continually strive for." Is there any competition between the two champions? "I don't fight battles I can't win," is Agassi's instant reply.

Nor does the retired Graf, who knows better than most what winning Wimbledon means to an athlete and must therefore find it very difficult to have to sit in the stands to watch Agassi compete. "I think there's two sides to it," he says. "There's the side of it that's really tough because, obviously, caring for me and not having any say in what happens is tough. She's used to winning 98 per cent of the time, so now she's taken a step down when it comes to her success rate at the courts. But that being said, she sees me go through these things and she doesn't miss what she used to have to go through. She doesn't miss it when she sees the painful side."

Having shown good form at Queen's, the chances are that Agassi will have relatively few painful moments over the Wimbledon fortnight. But can he make it to the first Sunday in July? "Oh, it would be incredible," he says. "To be back out there in the final on the last day and to win - it would be the best one of all the Slams for me."

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