The Old Guy Who Could Save Menís Tennis

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I had come back from my jog the Saturday before last and, having showered, I flipped on the tube. I surfed till I saw Agassiís big eyebrows and big bald head, and there I paused. He was playing some nobody — theyíre mostly nobodies to me just now, on the menís side anyway — and they were in the third set. Agassi hit a few lasers and looked like he would cruise. The other guy was a slow, methodical, boring player. Suddenly Agassi lost his focus and his serve, and the other guy beat him for the first time in five career tries. The tournamentís other seminfinal was won by the teenage phenom with the 140-mph serve, Andy Roddick. "Too bad," I said to myself as I clicked off the tube. "That would have been interesting." Roddick went on to beat this other guy in straight sets in the final for his third tournament win — first on hard courts — in his rookie ATP season.

Roddick-Agassi indeed would have been interesting; it would have been the first menís non-Slam match in a goodly while to lure me back to the television on a Sunday. This reflection is why I would argue that Andre Agassi is the one guy in the guyís draw who could lug menís tennis back into the limelight during the coming fortnight in Queens. Look at the draw and imagine Agassi, on his game and on his horse, meeting Rafter or Sampras in the quarters; then, say, Henman or Safin in the semis and, defending the old guard against the new, Hewitt or, better still, young Roddick in the final. The second week of the Open, with the juiced Big Apple crowd going bonkers under the lights, could be fun.

I first saw Agassi play when he was not yet Roddick, not yet even on the radar screen. I was an obviously much younger reporter working a tournament in Stratton, Vermont, for Sports Illustrated. My parents had driven up from Massachusetts for some early-round action and, while I was off working on my notes under a tree (I was writing on McEnroe), my mom had moseyed over to Court 2 to watch local hero Tim Mayotte play his first round match. He had drawn a kid from Las Vegas who had been wild-carded into the draw. At a set apiece, my mom came to shag me and Dad: "Youíve got to see this boy." She was righter than right. He had long multicolored hair and a whomping forehand. He was a dervish of hyperactive energy, but his effervescence came across as engaging, not boorish. He beat Mayotte that day, which was a mighty upset, and I believe he advanced a round or two more. By the time he was knocked out of the tournament he had a gaggle of 12-year-old up-country groupies trailing him on the grounds. I had witnessed, in those few days, the emergence of Andre Agassi. I filed my story on McEnroe at weekís end and mentioned to our tennis editor, Bill Colson, that we should do something on this kid. He said sure, talk to him. I enjoyed a sit-down with Agassi before he headed back to Vegas, and Bill headlined the subsequent piece "The Teen Dream Who Could Save Tennis." Apparently the menís game was in the dumps at the time as it is now. Anyway, Bill wrote a prescient headline, that for sure.

Sports stars don't usually metamorphose during their careers. They might add a left-handed hook, slow their backswing, throw more breaking balls when the heater loses steam, but they don't start arriving for work in fundamentally different guises. We don't think about the many faces of Michael Jordan or Mark McGwire. They are who they are.

And then thereís Andre Agassi. "I am constantly changing," he once said to me, and for him, that was an exceedingly rare understatement.

When first I glimpsed Agassi more than a decade ago — seems like forever ago — he was skinny, and had an omigosh attitude. As mentioned, he had been raised in Vegas, of all places, yet was so well-mannered he made his early fame by applauding his opponentís shots and by overruling linesmen — in the other guyís favor. He was cute, a pre-Justin Justin with that roaring forehand and that leonine mane (yes, my child, Andre once had hair, streaked with fancy colors). The forehand and the hair became trademarks of a sort. He was just what tennis needed, and as it happened he was very, very good. Riding topspin to number three in the world before he was 20, he won the big one, Wimbledon, at age 22 in í92. A baseliner winning on grass: He could do it all.

Then, in his second stage, he couldnít. Even while he was making serious hay as Nike and Canonís poster boy — an outlaw, a rebel — he was staying out late, suffering injuries and sagging on court like a sprung net. He dropped to No. 25 in the world and looked to be one kaput wunderkinder.

What we realize now is: Agassiís arenít mere comebacks, they are reinventions. He never returns from the pits as a rejiggered Andre, he returns as an entirely new if equally strange being. In 1994 he came back as the Zen Master. He drifted unseeded and unheeded through the U.S. Open draw — a controlled, first-serve-in player on the court, a spouter of self-improvement blather in the press tent. Hey, it was the í90s: He was just what tennis needed.

I saw him play at Flushing that year. It was a sparse crowd one night, as the unseeded Agassi wasnít able to draw as he once had or would again. Most in the audience, you could sense, were feeling bad for him: lost and forgotten at such a young age. But as I watched, something began to dawn on me. "Geez," I remember saying to my girlfriend (girlfriend then, now my wife). "Heís killing the ball." He was and he would for a good, long while.

In 1995 he won the Australian Open and was cruising along as Number One in the world when, in the finals of the U.S. Open, he was knocked into Stage Four of his saga by a Californian named Pete Sampras. This was the guy who, with Agassi, was going to create one of tennisís great rivalries, a Borg-McEnroe deal. "It was the perfect scenario for us to really carry this game to a new level." Sampras lamented a couple of years ago, when he was on top and Andre wasnít. "But it never really happened."

Blame yourself, Pete. The thrashing Sampras administered at Flushing Meadows in í95 cracked Agassiís karma, causing him to question his commitment to the game. When a tennis pro is looking for something to take his mind off tennis, he shouldnít necessarily bump into, say, Brooke Shields. Andre swooned, wed, and swooned again, eventually bottoming out in 1997 at a world ranking of 141. "I made a distinct choice for my life, and I donít regret that at all," Agassi said. "Iím responsible for what I did — not Brooke."

A ranking of 141 doesnít mean youíre slumping, it means youíre history. No one but no one expected Agassi to resurface this time.

But, lo, he did — single again and with his bristly head squarely atop a buffed, shaved physique. Andreís fifth variation was as The Body, and it was put to the test in June, 1999, during a series of tough five-setters at the French Open, winning efforts all. The French title, which Sampras has never claimed, put Agassi in the record books as the fifth man in history and the first since Rod Laver in 1968 to win all four Grand Slam events.

This was just what tennis needed. With womenís Number One Martina Hingis showing her colors as a pouty whiner, Steffi Graf heading for the exit and Sampras presiding over a drab menís game, Agassiís resurrection proved come in the nick of time. When Sampras and Agassi reached the finals at Wimbledon in 1999, interest in a menís match was at itís highest since. . . well, since these two had met in Queens four years prior. Sampras won on the grass that July and beat Agassi twice more on hard courts in the U.S. that year, but all three matches have been hard fought and well played. "He forces me to add things to my game," said Sampras at the time. "Itís good for tennis in America to have us two competing and going at it like weíve been the past couple of months. I feel a certain buzz with the rivalry kind of kicking up."

You know whatís happened since then. Against all odds, Sanpras has faded as Agassi has ascended. The menís game has developed a serious case of Venus envy. Yes, sure, heís had a bizarre season in 2001. After winning the first Slam event, the Australian Open, he had that weird day in Paris when he seemed spooked by Bill Clintonís presence in the stands and departed Roland Garros ignominiously. He made a similar, strange exit from Wimbledon — losing a match he should have won. And admist it all he has announced that he and Steffi Graf, of all people, are expecting a kid.

The so-far surreal year only serves to add to the legend. The betting here is that Stage Six culminates with some dramatics at the Open — best-case, a win over Roddick — followed by the emergence of a baby with ten fingers, ten toes and a genetic predisposition for the sport of tennis unlike any the planet has ever seen.

Flushing is a great venue for Agassi for many of the same reasons it was great for Jimmy Connors. Planes from LaGuardia zoom overhead, fans are ready to rumble: Itís a coliseum like no other in tennis. Itís not unquiet, itís anti- quiet. In one of sportís lovely ironies, tennis fans in Polo sweatsuits, sustained by ten-dollar-a-slice quiche, scream bloody murder in support of their idea of working-class heroes — formerly Connors, now Agassi. Back when Agassi had hair, he met the 30-something Connors in an under-the-lights clash, and it was one of the hottest Open tickets ever. Agassi won that match to the dismay of the crowd. Now heís 31 himself, and heís the man. The only man, really: The Old Guy Who Could Save Menís Tennis. Moreover, heís in a position to savor it as Connors, an athlete never in need of a comeback, simply couldnít. "It was amazing to experience so much in your life," Agassi said as he entered Stage Five-point-five, post Brooke but pre Steffi. "I think it put me in a position to really appreciate things this time around."

He was referring not specifically to the dissolution of his marriage, nor to his latest fall and rise as a player, but to all of it — to life itself, and to how this man recaptured his bygone love of a game. Agassi did an altogether extraordinary thing to jumpstart the latest stages of his careening career. Tired of getting beat week after week on the Tour, he sent himself down. He entered a couple of Challenger Series events, tournaments filled with hopeful kids — wide-eyed kids with untamed forehands and wild haircuts. He did well in the bush leagues. He got his confidence back and his will to win. He learned what he needed to know: That although the lighthearted lad from Las Vegas, pink of cheek and hair, is a distant memory, there still burned the boyís spark. Six degrees of separation later, he has, somehow, grown into a barrel-chested action figure, a World Wrestling Federation type in tennis shoes. But some essentials havenít changed. Including this: Heís just what the game needs right now.