Reyes' training keeps Agassi at the summit

Basketball coach who has worked with American former world No 1 since 1989 mixes science with sagacity

John Roberts
Monday 24 June 2002 00:00 BST

The formidable Gil Reyes is responsible for keeping Andre Agassi's engine purring at the age of 32. While Nick Bollettieri and Brad Gilbert have contributed hugely to Agassi's success, and Darren Cahill's coaching is designed to refresh the Las Vegan's game, Reyes, his fitness trainer, is closest to the heartbeat.

"Gil has been great over the years," Agassi said. "He's always taken my eagerness, my abilities, and he has kept me jumping out of my shoes."

It was Agassi's turn to take Reyes's breath away when he named his son, Jaden Gil, in the trainer's honour. "That is an emotional treasure I could never properly express," said the 50-year-old Reyes.

"What is amazing about Andre is not so much that he is as fit as he is now, but that he is fitter now than he was at 25 or 26. It comes down to one simple philosophy: plan your work, then work your plan. You can't have a bad week, or a bad two weeks, and give up on your fitness plan. You have to know that in the long run it will serve you."

Reyes began training Agassi in 1989, having been the strength and conditioning coach for the basketball programme at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. "I have told Andre since he was a teenager, the day that I stop learning is the day I should stop teaching. At this point in the journey, we are more determined than ever to be students of the craft."

The verbose Reyes can be endearingly self-depreciating. "Over the years," he said, "Andre has learned my strengths. But, more importantly, I think he has learned and accepted and been able to overcome my many weaknesses and shortcomings as a teacher."

In some way, Reyes regrets not having had someone like the man he has become advising him in his time as a strong safety linebacker at the University of California in Santa Barbara. "I wasn't very fast, so I depended on whatever abilities I did have to come up and hit somebody rather than out-run them," he recalled. "In my training, for so many years, I made so many mistakes. I was motivated, I was determined, and I certainly recognised the need, as an athlete, to be stronger and increase my physical capabilities. I just didn't have anybody around to teach me.

"Unfortunately, a mistake that is made by many athletes is they take their motivation and enthusiasm and run head first into a brick wall of frustration, because they are trying exercise and training programmes that don't really suit them."

Agassi, Reyes's fellow mature student, is confident that Cahill, an Australian who previously coached his compatriot, Lleyton Hewitt, to the United States Open title and to No 1 in the world, will add impetus to his quest for further major honours. "It's something that's going to work itself into my game over the long haul," Agassi said.

Success so far at the Nasdaq Open and the Italian Open bodes well. "It's given me a fresh perspective on my own game, as well as that of other players," Agassi said. "We find it very important to focus on finishing the point when I need to, not allowing the point to continue longer than it has to. Darren is able to look at the game through the lens of my tennis, which is a huge asset. He was different kind of player than me, and he knew what it was like to be on the other side of the net from good baseliners, and what they bring to the table that makes them hard to deal with."

Reyes knows his place. "I make it very clear to the coach that I will regard their position with respect," he said. "I will consult with him at all times on the collaboration by making sure we are all working for the same goal in the most efficient, effective manner.

"For example, if he has particular concerns with the game itself, and they need to be on the court an extra hour of practice, and Andre and he coach are working extra hard, then I have no problem at all backing off on the training. If he comes off and I immediately say, 'This is what I said we were going to do, and that's what we're going to do,' then we're beating down a racehorse.

"All along, I've seen Andre as a racehorse and not a plough-horse. There's nothing wrong with a plough-horse. He just doesn't happen to be one of them. I need to make sure that he's not the worse for wear and that he has not been broken down. His coaches have sensed that about me, that I will not interfere with the concerns that might exist between the lines of the tennis court. But I will always be aware."

Reyes's knack of balancing the workload was crucial to Agassi's rise from No 141 in November 1997 to finish No 1 in 1999, having won the French Open title to become only the fifth man in history to complete a collection of the four Grand Slam singles title.

After losing in the fourth round of the Australian Open in January 1999, Agassi asked Reyes: "Can I expect things to get more difficult for me physically as an athlete, or can I realistically hope to get any better?" Reyes replied: "I don't know. Let's find out."

Almost as soon as they returned from Melbourne, Agassi's will was tested by sprinting up and down a 320-yard hill he calls "Magic Mountain." Reyes was impressed. "You could hear him breathing hard," he said, "his lungs were screaming." Five months later, during a rain delay in the French Open men's singles final, Reyes told Agassi it would be a shame to waste his work on "Magic Mountain." Agassi recovered from two sets to love down to defeat the Ukrainian, Andrei Medvedev.

"We don't deny the truth," Reyes added. "Sometimes it's hidden behind some pretty rough roads. The truth of the matter is that as a professional athlete, especially a professional tennis player, it can be tough with the travel, with the schedule. You see some of the really good tennis players hit times of the year when their legs are dead, when you see then struggle physically. And it is a scary year as you turn 30."

"The body is the most important thing," Agassi said, "because without it you can't compete against these guys. And the mind and the experience is a big asset if everything's feeling good. Thirty-two is certainly old by tennis standards, but there are many athletes that find their best stuff in the mid-30s, and that's been proven a number of times. I just try to take care of myself and keep myself in position to be out there working this hard.

"It's a function of not necessarily training harder, but training smarter. Sometimes that means training harder. But in most cases it means having a good assessment as to where your mind and body is and then taking the next step without taking two steps back.

"I'm at a stage in my career now where I've got to look to do a few things differently to maximise my game. I'm constantly thinking about the game to give myself the advantage, because the advantage is being 32. It's important to get better in some ways as you get older, not just deteriorate. If you get to the ball, you have options. With options, I can use the experience, and my shot selection. I still have a lot of shots, if I can just get to the ball."

Perhaps Reyes has an elixir? "I think," the trainer said, "every athlete by now has pondered the hidden advantage that might be out there: the short cut, the magic formula, whether it comes in the form of a juice drink or an energy bar, whatever. There is no magic out there, just common sense in understanding that the body is going to work one way, and one way only. What Andre and I have done for 13 years is agree that we would not make the mistake of trying to re-invent the human body."

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