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Evolution and appreciation of Agassi

9/3/2006

No other player in modern tennis history has changed as dramatically -- in physical appearance, personal philosophy and corresponding conduct, and public perception -- as Andre Agassi.

Over an extraordinary 21-year pro career that concluded with an agonizing, intensely emotional, astonishingly gutsy journey to a third-round loss at the U.S. Open, Agassi, now 36, has gone from long-haired punk rocker to bald-then-shaved-headed portrait of the mature and responsible husband, father, and champion of the courts and worthy causes. A gladiator for all, and for the ages.

The teen idol you could count on to do and say the immature thing has evolved into the people's choice, even among purists he once infuriated.

That was never more evident than at his sentimental swan song Open. Battling bravely despite an aching back that would have sidelined almost anyone else, he beat Andrei Pavel in four tough sets and Marcos Baghdatis in an unforgettable five-set passion play before succumbing -- but not surrendering -- to qualifier Benjamin Becker Sunday, 7-5, 6-7, 6-4, 7-5.

Agassi exited tearfully, and manfully. He wept courtside at Arthur Ashe Stadium as a capacity crowd -- including Becker, a 25-year-old German who went to Baylor and won the NCAA singles title -- rose and showered him for what seemed like an eternity with heartfelt applause. Then Agassi thanked the fans -- and all the crowds who helped will him so far -- with a short, sweet, uplifting speech punctuated with sobs and sincerity.

It has been a remarkable and riveting transformation, an odyssey as dreamlike and occasionally self-contradictory as "The Wizard of Oz." Agassi has traveled a yellow-brick road from clueless kid with undeniable talent who at times seemed to lack heart, brains and courage, to an accomplished adult whose achievements on the court, values, and contributions to several communities have established him not as a tactless imposter, but a kind and wise wizard.

The self-absorbed kid who used to quit when it was convenient, routinely showed up opponents, thumbed his nose at tradition and trash-talked authority, has grown up to be respectful and respected -- a man of determination who never gives up.

Agassi has traded ennui for empathy, condescension for compassion, angst and attitude for reformation and rectitude.

Colleagues and crowds have gradually, sometimes grudgingly, come to appreciate Agassi as an activist, a philanthropist, a redoubtable winner in every sense of the word.
The rebel with a camera commercial but without a cause has become an idealist with an effectively realistic approach to humanitarian missions, a tireless crusader for disadvantaged kids.

The impressive journey from confused prodigy to clear-minded man of principle and purpose is complete now, but it will not end with his retirement, for Agassi has gained a stature that transcends tennis.

He has distinguished himself as one of those global sports luminaries who can continue to generate headlines and endorsement deals and charitable contributions, positively affecting lives long after he has hoisted his last trophy and cashed his final prize-money check.

He can be an ongoing role model not only for his own family -- wife Steffi Graf, a great and graceful champion in her own right, and their children -- but for countless other kids who need to grow up and take responsibility for their own lives and then reach out to help others less fortunate.

Agassi's travels and travails are ultimately an inspiring, feel-good story because his actions, more than his now carefully chosen words and poignant valedictory, indicate that steely will can coexist with a soft heart and voice. The guy who once screamed that image is everything now knows that integrity is vastly more important, the quality of every experience counts, and strength of character is paramount.

Perhaps the purists in the tennis media misjudged the young Andre when we -- and I was among his harshest critics -- dismissed him as the tennis equivalent of a Las Vegas lounge act: a showboat with gaudy talent who way down deep seemed shallow.

He appeared, by his youthful actions and indiscretions, to be thoughtless, self-centered, inconsiderate, and oblivious to the game's genteel history and elegant traditions. In short, all neon flash and little of the finer light that illuminates great arenas and grand occasions, and in time brings an incandescent brightness to the sport's firmament.

He sometimes seemed destined to be a shooting star who would flame out as spectacularly as he ascended at age 17, young and cocky. The bravado with which he belted the ball and tossed his sweat-soaked shirts to the crowd and strutted his stuff masked deep-seated and unstated insecurities and self-doubts as to what all the fuss was about, not to mention what really matters in life.

Even when we tried to look inside, he made it difficult to see any depth, any real concern for circumstances other than his own, any understanding of the game's heritage or simpatico with other players, any yearning to belong and to become an exemplary champion.

But in retrospect, it had to have been there, beneath the seemingly superficial surface, because the poet reminds us that the child is father of the man. It took us a while to see through the façade to Agassi's soul, to understand that perhaps he did not reinvent himself as much as reveal his inner self.

It was easy to explain away the young Agassi as the product of a pugnacious father who had escaped poverty in Iran by becoming an Olympic boxer, and subsequently drove the youngest of his four kids to pursue tennis relentlessly, mainly as the means to a lavish lifestyle otherwise unattainable for a bellhop on the Vegas Strip.

Young Andre seemed more intent on hitting a jackpot that would make him somebody at Caesar's Palace than on winning Wimbledon or the Davis Cup.

We winced when he proclaimed loudly at the 1990 U.S. Open that his greatest thrill on a tennis court was unveiling the new "hot lime" jerseys Nike designed to complement Andre's black denim shorts.

Past champions retched when he said he didn't think he could play wearing the "predominantly white" attire required at Wimbledon, and called the majordomo of the French Open a "bozo" for proposing a similar dress code. If that happened, Agassi sniffed, he would consider bypassing Parisian clay as well as Wimbledon grass. He was only interested in green if it was negotiable.

He had already been runner-up in the 1990 French, his first major final, where the trophies were presented by Rene Lacoste, one of the revered "Four Musketeers" who dominated the Davis Cup and major championships for France in the late 1920s and early '30s. Asked what it meant to him to meet a living legend, Agassi famously wondered: "You mean that old guy?"

This seemed to encapsulate all Agassi knew or cared about tennis history and the pantheon of past champions. Except for his sister's husband and his mentor, Pancho Gonzalez, they were just "old guys" whose names and deeds he didn't want to know.

But if gold and glitter and over-the-top fashion statements appeared to be the ends of his tennis rainbow, they started to look like dead ends, hollow successes, Pyrrhic victories. He came to see that satisfaction comes not from self-aggrandizement, but from self-fulfillment and the passionate pursuit of excellence and estimable goals that benefited and were shared with others.

It was hard to imagine then that the hirsute newcomer who rankled legendary champions with on-court antics and off-court comments would later become one of them. That in the end he would represent the true spirit of sportsmanship and the mutual respect that bonds champions across continents and generations. Agassi ultimately made his father proud not only of the tennis player, but of the man he became.

Who would have thought that the rhinestone in the rough would turn out to have a will as hard as diamonds, a heart of gold, a social conscience and activist fervor that would make the sainted Arthur Ashe smile?

Who could have imagined that the kid who skipped Wimbledon from 1988 to '90 because he didn't think it was important would win his first major title there, and become such a beloved figure at the All England Club that he would get a regal, heartfelt send-off after announcing on the eve of this year's Championships that he would retire following the U.S. Open?

The guy who once screamed that image is everything now knows that integrity is vastly more important, the quality of every experience counts, and strength of character is paramount.

Who could have guessed that after being eclipsed in the final of the 1990 Open by fellow American Pete Sampras -- who had classical style, throwback deportment and palpable respect for past champions -- that Agassi would be the one to win all of the Grand Slam singles titles? Sampras would win a record 14 Grand Slam titles to Agassi's eight, but who would have envisioned that Agassi would play four years after Sampras retired, thereby prematurely ending one of tennis' splendid rivalries? Or that Agassi would ultimately bring as much majesty to his sport as Sampras? Or that Agassi's sentimental run to the U.S. Open final in 2005 would invite comparisons to Jimmy Connors as the last great on-court roar of a tennis lion in winter?

Who could have foreseen that the youngster who tanked matches, faked injuries, had an excuse for every failure and was often ungracious in victory would turn into a gallant grinder, even when a chronic sciatic nerve condition became increasingly painful? But who could dispute that as Agassi limped helplessly through the last three sets of a five-set, first-round loss at the 2005 French Open because he thought it would be unfair to his opponent and the crowd to default.

I went to a U.S.-Argentina Davis Cup series in Buenos Aires in 1988 primarily to get an up-close look at Agassi, who at 18 was already heir apparent to John McEnroe as the top U.S. player. He clearly had the game and potential to be a superstar, but no notion that being top of the class meant he should act with some class.

Agassi played brilliantly and had the notoriously jingoistic Argentinean crowd cheering him as he took a 6-2, 6-2, 5-0 lead over Martin Jaite, a gentlemanly but outclassed opponent. Serving at 0-5, 40-0, Jaite just missed an ace. Before the second serve, Agassi turned to his then-coach, Nick Bollettieri, and mouthed: "Watch this." Jaite served his second ball and Agassi caught it with his left hand. He didn't seem to comprehend how bush-league it was to show up an opponent that way, even after the crowd booed him for five minutes.

Over the next few years, Agassi embellished his reputation as an incredible striker of the ball who could blow opponents off the court, or get frustrated and choke or surrender when he couldn't win with punishing velocity alone, or simply lose interest -- especially in pressure situations and five-set matches.

It came to the point that tour followers could often predict when Agassi would quit or default, claiming a convenient injury. That seemed to be the case in the 1990 Davis Cup finals in St. Petersburg, Fla., when Agassi pulled out of a meaningless match after the U.S. had clinched the cup against Australia, making a spectacle of what some suspected was a phantom muscle pull. Agassi had been trying to get out of a commitment to an upcoming tournament.

Later that evening, I sat incredulously at an adjacent table in a pancake house as Agassi and his brother/adviser and another trusted member of his entourage tried to figure out how to get a medical excuse from the pending tournament without taking too much heat from the media or the tennis establishment. It was not an uplifting conversation, and I wrote some of what I overheard from a few feet away, looking straight at Agassi. Other journalists fanned the flames. Agassi called me and spent an hour trying to convince me that the damning things he acknowledged saying were not really what he meant.

So, yes, I was initially skeptical about every report of a "new Agassi."

Another irony: the player to whom Agassi defaulted in that inconsequential Davis Cup match blasted him that day, saying: "He is a great tennis player, but apart from the tennis playing, I think that anything that comes out of his mouth is of very little significance. … I don't like him because the stuff he carries on with is needless." That Aussie player has since changed his mind, too. It was Darren Cahill, Andre's current coach and confidant.

I did write from a Davis Cup series in September 1991, weeks after a first-round loss at the U.S. Open had stunned him, that he seemed to be growing up and finally paying attention to what it takes to be a champion. "I'm starting to view competition as a challenge now, as opposed to an inconvenience or something," Agassi said, a remarkably revealing admission for a 21-year-old player who had already ranked in the world top 10 for four years and had been a finalist at three Grand Slam tournaments.

Little did I suspect that I, gradually and grudgingly, would become an unabashed Agassi admirer.

It took a number of years, as Agassi was tempered by triumphs, trials and tribulations. He kept finding and losing his way, looking always for something larger and more important than he had previously imagined.

His career and his life had rousing resurgences and severe slumps. There was the marriage to and divorce from the luminous Brooke Shields, Princeton-educated star of stage and screen, which always felt more like a Hollywood romance than true love. And then Agassi wooed and wed Graf, who became his wife, soul mate and guiding light.

I have watched the final 15 years of Agassi's career mostly from a distance, not being nearly as close to the tennis scene as I was the previous 20 years. But my positive impressions were reinforced by conversations with some of the colleagues I respect the most -- Mary Carillo, Bud Collins and Dick Enberg among them. Like countless others, I became convinced that Agassi's transformation was sincere and genuine.

Wealth, notoriety and the privileges of celebrity came early and easily to Andre Agassi. He had to earn enduring respect, admiration and affection, and he did so the hard way. That is what will last. He will be remembered as one of the great old guys of his sport.

Barry Lorge has been a regular in the media center at the U.S. Open for 39 years. A former Washington Post staff writer, sports editor-columnist of The San Diego Union and contributing editor to Tennis magazine, he has covered the sport in more than two dozen countries on five continents, and co-authored the section on tennis in the Encyclopedia Britannica.