Showman set for his final bow
As Andre Agassi prepares for his farewell tournament, Paul Newman reflects on a career that saw the American transformed from a talented tearaway into a tennis legend
Thursday 24 August 2006
When Bjorn Borg put his Wimbledon trophies up for auction earlier this year one of the senior statesmen of tennis talked of forming a consortium to buy them. "I've discussed it with my own people to find a way of gathering the right people together to buy those trophies and do right by the game to purchase them," he said. "The thought of a Wimbledon trophy being in the hands of somebody who has a lot of money is upsetting. Wimbledon is the greatest tournament in the world."
Rewind some 18 years and you would have got long odds about that defender of the game's soul being an outspoken, spiky-haired rebel with apparently little time for the sport's traditions and whose outrageous outfits were matched only by the colour of his on-court language. Andre Agassi made his Wimbledon debut at 17 but disliked the grass and did not return for four years. He showed even less respect for one of the other Grand Slam tournaments, ignoring the Australian Open until 1995.
Tennis, however, specialises in turning its youthful tearaways into revered middle-aged sages. John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors will therefore no doubt be offering measured words of wisdom when the Las Vegan, now one of the game's most eloquent ambassadors, takes his final bow.
Twenty years after making his debut, the biggest box-office attraction the game has ever known will end his career at his home Grand Slam tournament, which starts in New York next Monday. Nobody does prolonged misty-eyed farewells quite like America, but Agassi's departure could be swift. The back problem which has plagued his later years has restricted him to just 16 matches since his wonderful run to last year's final at Flushing Meadows and his recent form has not been worthy of a man with a strong claim to a place in the top 10 players of history.
Agassi has won eight Grand Slam tournaments, putting him joint sixth on the all-time list (alongside, among others, Roger Federer). He is one of only five players (with Fred Perry, Donald Budge, Rod Laver and Roy Emerson) who have won all four Grand Slam events and is the only man who has won them on four different surfaces. Only six players can beat his tally of 60 ATP titles.
Agassi's father, Mike, an Iranian who had boxed for his homeland in the Olympics and become a tennis fanatic after emigrating to America, sent Andre to Nick Bollettieri's Florida academy at 13. The youngster was keen to learn, though always had a mind of his own. On one occasion, tiring of Bollettieri's motormouth, he asked: "Ever try listening?"
He won his first ATP title at 17 and the following year reached the French and US Open semi-finals. He emerged just as McEnroe and Connors were in the autumn of their careers and America was wondering who would follow them. The game quickly warmed to a player clearly in tune with popular culture. Agassi wore his hair long, dressed colourfully, swore at officials and when matches were not going his way was not averse to scatter-gunning the ball around the court.
Sponsors loved him. His first Nike deal (he accepted an offer which McEnroe had rejected to wear denim shorts) was worth $25,000 (about £13,200); his biggest was for $120m (£63.5m) over 10 years. He has won $31m (£16.4m) in prize-money but has earned more than eight times that amount from endorsement deals, far more than any other player in history.
You have only to listen to Andy Murray to appreciate what Agassi meant to young people. "When I was growing up he was the one I wanted to be, the one I wanted to watch on TV," the 19-year-old Scot said. "He changed tennis. He made tennis a cool sport."
Not all of Agassi's contemporaries were so convinced. Ivan Lendl labelled him "just a haircut and a forehand", but that was certainly never fair. Armed with a great eye and lightning feet and hands, Agassi hit the ball formidably on both flanks, returned beautifully and served with surprising power for a player of his size. Nevertheless, it came as a surprise when he won his first Grand Slam event at Wimbledon in 1992. It was only his third grass-court tournament and at that stage Agassi-watchers were usually more concerned with whether he would flout the All England Club's rules on all-white clothing (he did not and even turned up on Centre Court wearing an all-white track suit).
By 1995 Agassi had also won the US and Australian Opens, but two years later his game went to pieces, just as he began his ill-fated marriage to the actress Brooke Shields. Agassi, apparently bored with tennis, dropped to No 141 in the world rankings.
The return from that low point, however, proved the making of him, both as a player and as a man. His change of attitude was evident when he took up a training regime devised by Gil Reyes, his fitness trainer and mentor. "Gil gave me a mentality that got me into a working mind," Agassi says. "I pushed myself hard. I built a base that allowed me to transcend some generations and compete against guys who were much bigger, taller and arguably faster than me - and in some cases better than me."
Whether it was running over sand dunes or giving his all in practice sessions, Agassi set the benchmark for fitness and commitment. No wonder Brad Gilbert, coach to Agassi then and to Murray now, was keen for the young Scot to practise with his former charge last month and witness his dedication first-hand.
In 1998 a resurgent Agassi climbed back to No 6 in the world. The following year he achieved what he considers his greatest triumph, winning the French Open to complete his Grand Slam collection. "The day I won in Paris was the day I knew I would never have another regret the rest of my career," Agassi says. There was another reason why the memory would remain special: it was in Paris that year that he started seeing Steffi Graf, who became his wife and is now mother of their two children.
Agassi's development as a player committed to all-out aggression was matched by his growing maturity. He now recognises that he made mistakes in his early years, such as staying away from Wimbledon. "I grew up in the public eye and had to learn some tough lessons in front of a lot of people - one of which was to respect the greatest tournament in our sport. To miss it for a number of years and to come back taught me a lot about what the human spirit is capable of.
"Wimbledon was a place that first taught me to respect the sport, to really appreciate the opportunity and privilege it is to play a game for a living, to play tennis. People work five days a week to play on the weekend. We get to call it a job. I think I learnt that at Wimbledon."
Agassi wants to stay in tennis and certainly has the look of a future Davis Cup captain. He will also spread the tennis gospel. "I have a strong belief in what this sport offers a person's life," he said. "It's one-on-one combat. It's a sport that forces you to problem-solve by yourself, that somebody can play their whole life, keeps them healthy."
Agassi will have more time for his charity work, which is extensive.His most ambitious project has been the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, a school for vulnerable children which he founded in Las Vegas five years ago. "I realised that the only way to make a difference in a child's life is to help them learn how to make better decisions for themselves," Agassi said. "So it led to education, which we took on with this charter school.
The one certainty is that we will not have heard the last of Andre Kirk Agassi. "I won't do well bored," he said. "That's not an option for me."
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