Sunday, July 13
Agassi's latest years have been his best

ESPN.com

He had just won another match and was searching for his wife. From the red floor of Court Philippe Chatrier, Andre Agassi finally caught the eye of Steffi Graf, applauding along with the other patrons, and threw her the bouquet of a small wave.

Andre Agassi
Andre Agassi's style and focus have changed dramatically.

"Hopefully, I'm giving her something to enjoy her day," Agassi said later. "That always is an added motivation, to make sure that I make it a good day for her if she comes out to the courts."

At 33, Andre Kirk Agassi was the oldest man among the 128 entered at the French Open and, barring any surprise qualifiers, should be the oldest at Wimbledon -- the site of his first major win -- when it begins Monday. He is the No. 1 ranked man in the world. That he is still standing, literally and figuratively, is an extraordinary achievement. He turned professional at the age of 16 and, now, half a life later, he has discovered the things that make him happy and has immersed himself in them.

Agassi has, in so many ways, become a wise, old man. Soon, he'll be wearing a cardigan sweater, shuffling across the floor and telling those back-in-my-day stories that leave his kids rolling their eyes.

As a 4-year-old, he hit balls with Bjorn Borg and Ilie Nastase; his father, Mike, was a stage father. He was the prize pupil of Nick Bollettieri. He announced himself, in a flash of long hair and attitude, and the image-is-everything image was created. It wasn't who he was, but he went along with it. Agassi excited people -- hell, it was exciting being Agassi.

But as time passed, as Agassi evolved, he rejected that mythical creature. And today, the transformation is complete. Pete Sampras, his great rival, has followed the opposite trajectory. It is an arresting juxtaposition.

I'm proud that I'm still out here. But I just don't want to be out here, I want to do it well.
Andre Agassi

Consider: Sampras, always a stoic, inaccessible champion, has come out in recent years. He moved to Los Angeles, married a beautiful actress. Retired, for all intent and purpose, he hangs out at Hollywood parties and visits backstage with Pearl Jam.

Agassi? He, too, had a movie-star wife, Brooke Shields, but the marriage ended after two years. The true love of his life, he says, is Graf, winner of 22 Grand Slam singles titles. The symbolism is inescapable; she doesn't have Shields' sculpted cheekbones but she is pure, unadulterated tennis. Agassi's music of choice? Elton John, Celine Dion, Lionel Richie, Fleetwood Mac. Old man music.

He spends the vast majority of his time with a handful of people: Graf and their first child, Jaden Gil; strength coach (and namesake) Gil Reyes; coach Darren Cahill; and manager Perry Rogers.

"I have a very close circle, for very specific reasons," Agassi said. "You know, I'm inspired by those around me. By Gil, my best friend since I was 11 years old. Perry, who works with me. Obviously, my wife.

"To me, there's nothing better than repeating the same old things every day with each other because it's amazing how much you learn if you spend your time with the right people."

Eating it, too?
When Sampras beat Agassi in last year's U.S. Open final, it was his crowning achievement. "This one might take the cake," Sampras said after winning his record 14th Grand Slam singles title.

And while Sampras' activity suggests his career is over, Agassi is still hungry for another slice.

He's the reigning Australian Open champion and, since losing in four sets to Sampras, had a streak of 11 straight Grand Slam match wins before he lost to Argentine Guillermo Coria in the quarterfinals of the French Open. In the 1,000th match of his career, in the first round at Queens last week, Agassi prevailed over Australian Peter Luczak in straight sets. His millennium record: a tidy 766-234.

"I'm proud that I'm still out here," Agassi said. "But I just don't want to be out here, I want to do it well."

Andre Agassi
Andre Agassi used to play 'like his hair was on fire.'

A victory at Wimbledon -- hardly a stretch -- would give him nine Grand Slam singles titles. That would distance him from Ivan Lendl, Ken Rosewall, Jimmy Connors and Fred Perry, celebrated champions, who all won eight Slams.

When he was in his Vegas-lounge entertainer mode, Agassi was the consummate lounge singer, desperate to please, emotionally needy. He played to the crowd; just as they lived vicariously through him, one senses, Agassi lived vicariously through the crowd living through him. Now, he is supremely focused and ruthlessly efficient. When he wins, he no longer rips off his shirt and throws it into the crowd. He bows like a boxer to the four sides of the court and blows a signature kiss.

In his third-round French Open match, against Belgium's Xavier Malisse, Agassi could have been his father. He didn't waste one precise, stubby step. The pony-tailed Malisse was extroverted and, well, all over the place.

"That's how he used to play," said ESPN analyst Mary Carillo. "Like his hair was on fire.

"But now, everything about him is so measured and so professional. He's such a grown-up. He doesn't have to entertain the crowd -- now he entertains them only with his tennis. He shows such respect for the tournament and the opponent. He shows respect by not goosing and horsing around. I just think if I had to play Agassi, the fact that he takes me so seriously makes me feel nervous.

"He's become the consummate professional."

Said Brad Gilbert, Agassi's coach for three years: "Andre's one of those guys who is universally charismatic. As he's gotten older, he's much more methodical in his play, he's charismatic in the way he plays tennis."

When Agassi fell behind 19-year-old Mario Ancic 5-7 and 1-6 in the second round of the French Open, he did not panic. He did not play faster as so many do. He actually became more deliberate. Agassi rallied to win in five sets. Other than that modest hiccough, Agassi was on task, winning his other matches over Karol Beck, Flavio Saretta and Malisse in the minimum of three sets, conserving energy.

"I knew the first week was going to be crucial for me," Agassi said after his victory over Saretta pushed him into the quarterfinals. "So now it's like basically a new life. I've sort of found my comfort out there, striking the ball well, moving, and feeling pretty comfortable."

Agassi, who regained the No. 1 ATP ranking last week in advancing to the semifinals at the Queen's Club, has won 30 of 34 matches this year. That's a winning percentage of 88.2 -- better than No. 2 Lleyton Hewitt (25-5, 83.3), No. 3 Juan Carlos Ferrero (40-7, 85.1) and everyone else.

Rendering age irrelevant
He jetted into Rome six weeks ago as the defending champion and the newly minted No. 1 player in world. He was the oldest player to seize the No. 1 ranking in the 30-year history of the computer.

And then Agassi promptly lost to someone named David Ferrer in the first round. Humbled, he flew back home to Las Vegas. A week later, Hewitt was the world No. 1 again.

"The great part for me to get to No. 1 was a little piece of history, to be the oldest to do it," Agassi said. "But to be No. 1 for a week, without being the oldest, doesn't matter for me because it's the whole year. So, hopefully, this will make the good times even more special."

Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf
Steffi Graf, holding son Jaden Gil, travels with husband Andre Agassi to most tournaments.

Agassi is a big-picture guy. He sees, as they say, the whole field. As the years have passed, he has worked harder and harder to maintain his physical gifts; he still takes the ball early with dazzling hand-eye coordination and he remains one of the game's best returners of serve. Cahill, who coached Hewitt before he signed on with Agassi early last year, says Agassi is doing more than sustaining his game.

"The main reason he's still competing at this level," Cahill insisted, "is because he never trains to maintain, he trains to improve."

Reyes, the former strength coach at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, bludgeons him, often to the point of exhaustion. Agassi bench-pressed about 135 pounds before he started working out with Reyes. Now, he hoists 350 pounds.

After the debacle in Rome, they went back to work, the kind of sustained, detailed effort that Sampras no longer has an appetite for.

"I was in the gym and the hill in Vegas, just training, trying to get my legs and my wind," Agassi said. "Because physically I think it's the most demanding of tournaments.

"Things don't respond as quickly. They hurt a little longer. I don't feel any nagging sort of injuries, but I've got to stay on top of it. As you get older, it all sort of happens in your lower body. When you're young, that eagerness and youth, it doesn't matter how you feel, you just go with energy. When you get older, the energy is not there. You don't have something to fall back on."

Observed Cahill: "The challenge still remains the same. It's always been a brutal tournament to win, both physically and mentally, but because of the work Andre puts in with Gil Reyes, he's probably fitter than he was back in '99.

"The age factor is irrelevant considering he's already tucked away the first Slam of the year."

I've always been pretty intense on what I was focusing on. I guess I never quite stuck to the same thing when I was young, sort of finding my way. When I focused on something, I really poured myself into it. And, unfortunately, there's a lot of cases where it wasn't in the arena of what I do, which is tennis, and how good that's been to me.

And I regret that.

Andre Agassi

Gilbert sees parallels with the careers of John Elway and Barry Bonds.

"Agassi just plays smarter and more efficient," Gilbert said. "And he's learned to do it very well. He has gotten way better as he's gotten older because he believes he could. A lot of athletes don't believe, especially in tennis, that they can get better as they age. That's what drives him to get better."

Why? Agassi's biological clock is ticking. There is a heightened sense of urgency.

Between 1990 and 1995 he reached seven Grand Slam singles finals, winning three of them. And then for three years, in what should have been the prime of his career, Agassi took his eye off the ball. In 1997, his ranking careened all the way down to No. 141. He knew he was a better player than that and, for the first time, worked hard to prove it.

Agassi won three Grand Slam singles titles before his 29th birthday. After that milestone, he has won five and counting. By comparison, Sampras won 13 of his record 14 titles before his 29th birthday.

Of the eight matches they have played in Grand Slam events -- five times in the finals -- Sampras has won six. If Agassi had won three more of those matches, worked a little harder at the time, it is not a stretch to imagine Sampras and Agassi today with 11 Grand Slam titles each. Not a stretch at all.

Clearly, Agassi has thought about this.

"I've always been pretty intense on what I was focusing on. I guess I never quite stuck to the same thing when I was young, sort of finding my way. When I focused on something, I really poured myself into it. And, unfortunately, there's a lot of cases where it wasn't in the arena of what I do, which is tennis, and how good that's been to me.

"And I regret that.

"But I've always had an intensity towards what I was focused on. But I think now I'm just a bit more skilled at the balancing act of it all."

Older and, truly, better
He won his first ATP title 15 years ago in Brazil. After he defeated Saretta, a Brazilian, in Paris, Agassi reminisced.

Andre Agassi
A younger Andre Agassi garnered attention for his style -- and denim shorts. But today, it's all about the game.

"I beat Martin Jaite in the semifinals, Luiz Mattar in the finals, 7-6, 6-2, $90,000 check," Agassi said, smiling at his precise catalogue. "Lots of women in bathing suits going around. I remember a lot. It was a very special week for me down there, my first win.

"When I turned pro, the first paycheck I collected, which was the finals of the Florida satellite, lost in the finals, finished third, picked up about 28 ATP points, lost to Jay Lapidus, 2 and 1. I had to make a decision, basically, if I was turning pro or not. I knew I was going to sooner or later, so might as well do it with a $1,100 check."

Of his 768 match victories, sixth on the all-time list, he estimates he remembers 75 percent of them. He may well remember each of his 235 losses.

"You can test me any time," Agassi told the media at the French Open. "I'd love to know myself how much I remember."

Today, after winning more than $26 million in official prizes and perhaps three or four times that off the court, Agassi said he hopes he'll never get to the point where several hundred thousand dollars doesn't mean anything to him. On the other hand, he said, money is not his motivation.

"There's a lot of accomplishments that go along with success out there," Agassi said. "Financial is one of them. Being able to have hardware, the trophies, that's another part of it.

"You quickly realize that to succeed you have to focus on bringing out the best in your game. The more you think about that, the less you think about exterior things, the better off you are and the more you win, that sort of thing.

"The simple answer is it's not a factor. Actually, it's a distraction. You need to think about what you're doing out there."

As he presses on, Agassi is leaving statistical wreckage everywhere.

When he defeated Rainer Schuettler in the Australian Open final, 6-2, 6-2, 6-1, it was the most one-sided of his eight Grand Slam victories and the most one-sided Aussie final, going back to 1926. He was also the oldest man since Rosewall won in 1972 at the age of 37.

Agassi has won three other titles this year -- San Jose, Miami and Houston -- and is creeping up the all-time list of singles titles past the age of 30: Rod Laver (44), Rosewall (29), Arthur Ashe (20), Connors (15), Agassi (13).

"I believe he understands better the game," Spaniard Alex Corretja said. "He used to hit the ball pretty hard and now he plays quickly, he returns well. He is serving better, but he also knows how to defend. Sometimes, when he plays on clay, especially with his backhand, he goes (with) a little bit more top spin. He makes the other guy run. He's smart now."

After winning the Australian Open, Agassi was moved.

"I am really overwhelmed by it," Agassi said. "I've said so many times, as you get older you realize how quickly these moments pass.

"You want to make the most of them."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.