American tennis player
In the 1980s America's tennis fans took to heart a new kind of player, one without the disciplined control of a Boris Becker or the tantrums of a John McEnroe . "To see him is to think of MTV," wrote a Sports Illustrated reporter when Agassi burst onto the scene in 1987. "The kid … has a teenager hipster's style and swagger.… He looks like he might arrive for matches by skateboard." At the same time, the same observer noted, he showed both good manners and old-fashioned enthusiasm. "Remember when tennis players expressed joy instead of fist-pumping intensity?… Remember when they smiled? Agassi does all that. He's a throwback." It was a powerful combination, and Agassi picked up endorsement contracts from Nike and Canon. But for a long time, critics wrote him off because he couldn't seem to win any of the Grand Slam tournaments. Finally, in 1992, counted out as a serious contender, he won Wimbledon, the most important of the tournaments. He followed this up with wins at the U.S. and Australian Opens that finally silenced his critics.
In 1974, Agassi's hometown of Las Vegas hosted the Alan King tennis tournament, attracting a number of big names. But spectators were even more attracted to a four-year-old Andre Agassi hitting topspin forehands. Even
Jimmy Connors came by to witness the young prodigy and hit a few balls with him. In fact, Agassi had started much younger. His father, Emmanuel "Mike" Agassi, an Iranian immigrant, determined to raise a champ, had hung a ball and racquet over Andre's crib and by the age of two, young Agassi could use that racquet to serve the ball.
At age 13, with his father's encouragement, Andre Agassi left regular schooling and moved to Bandentown, Florida, to attend the renowned tennis academy run by Nick Bollettieri, who became Agassi's coach. Despite his early promise, Agassi actually proved to be an average player among the budding stars at the academy, and he began to turn to beer and marijuana to dull some of the frustration. "While he foundered mid-ladder at the academy for three years, trying to live up to the expectations of a father who was disappointed if he didn't win every match, Agassi did distinguish himself in the burgeoning ranks of racket-smashers," according to a Sports Illustrated reporter. Instead of kicking him out, Bollettieri taught him to refocus his energy into his game, channeling his anger into more power on the court.
This seemed to work. By the time Agassi was 16, he had won five United States Tennis Association (USTA) national junior titles. Understandably bored with the junior leagues, Agassi turned pro two days after his 16th birthday. In fact, he'd already signed a contract with Nike, a sign of his appeal to fans and sponsors alike. About this time, he also became a born-again Christian, a decision that caused him to question whether he should abandon his tennis career and focus on something more spiritual. In the end, another player in his bible-study group convinced him to stick with tennis, and Agassi credits his conversion with giving him a more relaxed personality that has actually enhanced his game and his career.
A Different Kind of Pro
Agassi's more relaxed style appealed to a number of fans. Instead of moodiness, they saw enthusiasm. Instead of someone throwing racquets after missing shots, they saw Agassi throwing kisses to the crowd after winning shots. His flashy clothes and long hair just added to this feeling of a fresh, young face in the tennis world, and the crowds took to him easily. Not that everyone was cheering. "God help him when he really starts losing," Ion Tiriac, Boris Becker's manager, told Sports Illustrated. "You can prance around like an idiot when you're on top, but whatever seems funny now will be seen as obscene or disastrous or a calculated disturbance as soon as you stop winning."
But for Agassi, the early years were winning years. He won his first pro tournament in 1987 and rose from a 41 ranking to 24. The next year turned out even better. He won six tournaments in 1988, including four in a row. Overall, he garnered a very impressive 63-11 record that year, and reached the semi-finals of both the French and U.S. Opens. He also helped carry the U.S. team to victory in the Davis Cup, crushing his Argentine opponent 6-2, 6-2, 6-1, "a victory which had the rest of the American team shaking their heads in disbelief," according to sports journalist and Agassi biographer Robert Philip. That year he went to number three in the rankings. He also became the second youngest player (after Boris Becker) to pass the $1 million mark in career prize money.
The next year was a disappointment. Agassi won only one tournament, and when he again lost the semifinals at the U.S. Open, critics began to wonder if he was just a flash in the pan. Fulfilling Tiriac's prophecy, they began to question his seriousness, calling him spoiled and overrated. As in 1988, he refused to play Wimbledon, citing among other things their refusal to let him wear his brightly colored tennis outfits.
The next few years were not much better. He did win four tournaments in 1990 and made it to the finals of the French Open, the first time he had gotten that far in a Grand Slam tournament. And at the end of the year, he won the first ever Association of Tennis Professionals World Tour Championship, beating other top-seeded players. But in 1991, he won only two tournaments and once again lost the French Open, this time to an old rival from his days at the Bollitieri Academy, Jim Courier . What made it harder was that he was poised to win toward the end of their final match, but he lost both of the final sets. Critics said Agassi would always "choke" when the pressure was on, and by early 1992, he had dropped out of the Top 10 rankings. He was suffering a loss of confidence, as he himself noted. At age 22, he worried that he might be a has-been.
Things began to change in 1992. Agassi had ended his boycott of Wimbledon in 1991, and he reportedly found the grass difficult to play on. In 1992, he began training with Wimbledon legend John McEnroe to overcome this handicap, and his hard work paid off when he beat Boris Becker and McEnroe himself to make it to the Wimbledon finals, against Goran Ivanisevic, a player famed for his hard serve. After losing the first match, Agassi came back to defeat Ivanisevic in the next two matches, but lost the next match. This time, Agassi did not choke. Instead, he went on to win in a hard-fought final match by a 6-4 score. In his excitement, he fell to his knees and screamed with joy.
By winning Wimbledon, Agassi had put to rest the myth that he could not win the big ones. But it was not all smooth sailing. The next year, bronchitis and a sprained wrist caused him to skip the Australian and French Opens. Still bothered by his wrist injury, and out of shape, he lost his Wimbledon title to Pete Sampras in the quarterfinals. Perhaps the highlight of that tournament was when Barbra Streisand showed up in the stands to support Agassi. For a time there was speculation of a romantic involvement, but neither party has confirmed them, and at the time Agassi was still very much with his long-time girlfriend Wendy Stewart.
In late 1993, Agassi's mentor and coach, Nick Bollittieri, announced that he was leaving to pursue other interests, a move that hurt him and may have contributed to his first-round loss in the U.S. Open a short time later. Agassi then missed the 1994 Australian Open, complaining of the same wrist injury that had troubled him at Wimbledon. Again, it seemed that he might be on his way out.
New Coach, New Triumphs
In the summer of 1994, Agassi hired former player Brad Gilbert to be his new coach, citing Gilbert's reputation for winning matches he was expected to lose. Gilbert convinced him to focus on winning smarter, and outthinking his opponents. The new strategy paid off when he won the 1994 U.S. Open, his second Grand Slam win. "Agassi is suddenly the biggest thing in tennis because he proved himself serious at last, and an Agassi with purpose is simply gigantic," wrote a Sports Illustrated reporter. Agassi was back in the top ranks, this time at number two in the rankings. Perhaps to mark this new seriousness, he shaved off his trademark long hair shortly before the Australian Open, where he reached the finals without losing a match and then defeated old rival Pete Sampras to take the title. It was a delicious revenge, and the sweeter because it made Andre Agassi the number one men's tennis player for the first time in his life.
|1970||Born April 29 in Las Vegas, Nevada|
|1974||Exhibits tennis skills at Alan King Tennis Tournament|
|1983||Enters Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Florida|
|1986||Turns pro, signs endorsement contract with Nike|
|1988||Ranked number 3, with 63-11 record; reaches semifinals at U.S. and French Opens|
|1988||Passes $1 million mark in prize winnings, becoming second youngest player to do so|
|1990||Helps U.S. team win Davis Cup; reaches finals in U.S. and French Opens|
|1992||Wins Wimbledon, first "Grand Slam" victory|
|1993||Coach and mentor, Nick Bollettieri, announces he is leaving Agassi team|
|1994||Hires Brad Gilbert as coach|
|1994||Wins U.S. Open; ranked number 2|
|1995||Wins Australian Open; ranked number 1 men's tennis player in world|
|1995||Founds Andre Agassi Foundation to help at-risk children|
|1996||Wins gold medal, 1996 Summer Olympics|
|1997||Marries actress Brooke Shields, April 19|
|1997||Falls to number 101 in tennis rankings|
|1999||Divorces Brooke Shields|
|1999||Wins French Open|
|1999||Learns that both sister Tami and mother have breast cancer|
|1999||Begins dating Steffi Graf|
|2000||Wins Australian Open|
|2001||Wins Australian Open (first back-to-back Grand Slam victory)|
|2001||Marries Steffi Graf, October 22; four days later she gives birth to their son, Jaden Gil|
Born to Serve
Really now. Can Andre Agassi, whose self-contradictions force tennis observers to question whether he's the game's new savior or just another infantile twerp, actually be unique?…
Bottom line: Agassi … is still a teenager. End of puzzle. See ya when you're 20 and back from the ozone, dude. He's got rock 'n' roll hair. Big deal. The last close-clipped, white American idol …may have been Pat Boone. But just because Agassi is No. 4 in the world; just because he has the speed, eyes and hands of a tennis genius; just because he hits the ball on the rise as well and as true and as hard as any human could possibly hit it—whew, man, and much harder than you would ever suspect a 5 ft. 11 in., 155-pound, spare-looking spider boy could—doesn't mean we should rush him into understanding geography, or acting less like a showboating nincompoop on the court or …or playing Wimbledon or something.
So, could Agassi, with his sidewinding howitzer forehand, his exotic, Middle Eastern surf-rat looks and that come-hither grin that melts all the girls, truly be the swirl of fresh air that tennis has been longing for? Or is he merely a chic bundle of cynical contrivances, a marketeer's dream package with a streak of show-biz evangelism, a veritable "Wayne Newton in denim"…?
Source: Curry Kirkpatrick, Sports Illustrated, March 13, 1989, p. 64.
Agassi would not remain number one for long. He lost at Wimbledon to Boris Becker and then to Sampras at the U.S. Open. By November of 1995, Sampras was back at number one, and in 1996, Agassi lost early rounds at the Australian and French Opens and at Wimbledon. He did win a gold medal at the 1996 Summer Olympics, but there was not much to celebrate the next year.
The next few years were a rollercoaster. He won no tournaments in 1997, and by the end of that year he was ranked a dismal 122. Off the court, his personal life was also trying. In May of 1997 he married his long-time fiancée, actress Brooke Shields, but by April 1999, they were divorced. By that time, he had begun yet another comeback. In 1998 he won five tournaments, and reaching the finals in five others. He ended the year ranked number six. Then he won the U.S. Open and the French Open in 1999. He had now won each of the Grand Slam tournaments. To top it off, he won the Australian Open again in early 2000, and once again in 2001—his first back-to-back victories in a Grand Slam tournament.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1988||Named Association of Tennis Professionals' "Most Improved Player of the Year"|
|1990||Wins first ever Tennis Professionals World Tour Championship|
|1990||Reaches finals, French Open and U.S. Open|
|1990||On victorious U.S. team, Davis Cup (vs. Australia)|
|1991||Reaches finals, French Open|
|1992||Wins Wimbledon, first "Grand Slam" victory|
|1992||On victorious U.S. team, Davis Cup (vs. Switzerland)|
|1994||First place, U.S. Open; ranked number 2|
|1995||First place, Australian Open; ranked number 1 men's tennis player in world|
|1996||Gold medal, 1996 Summer Olympics|
|1999||First place, French Open|
|2000||First place, Australian Open|
|2001||First place, Australian Open (first back-to-back Grand Slam victory)|
|2001||Second place, U.S. Open|
Agassi ended 2002 with a ranking of second and a record of 53-12. In October of 2001 he married fellow tennis great Steffi Graf , whom he started dating when both won the French Open in 1999, shortly after his divorce from Shields. Four days after their marriage, Graf gave birth to a baby boy, named Jaden Gil. From teenage hipster to family man, Andre Agassi had come a long way, and through it all he has retained a wicked tennis arm that attracted spectators when he was four, and continues to surprise opponents long after he has been counted out from serious competition.
Bauman, Paul. Agassi and Ecstasy: The Turbulent Life of Andre Agassi. New York: Basic Books, 1997.
Philip, Robert. Agassi: The Fall and Rise of the Enfant Terrible of Tennis. London: Bloomsbury, 1993.
Dellapina, John. "Agassi pulls off the improbable in U.S. Open." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (September 7, 2002): K5764.
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Kirkpatrick, Curry. "Agassi's ecstasy." Sports Illustrated (September 30, 1991): 12.
Kirkpatrick, Curry. "Back from exile." Sports Illustrated (August 1, 1988): 40.
"The many faces of Agassi." Time (September 6, 1999): 66.
McEnroe, Patrick. "Are you tough enough?" Tennis (September 1999): 135.
Price, S. L. "Anarchy and Agassi." Sports Illustrated (September 19, 1994): 34.
Price, S. L. "Lawnmower man." Sports Illustrated (July 12, 1999): 28.
Price, S. L. "A grand occasion." Sports Illustrated (September 16, 2002): 52.
Roessing, Walter. "Andre Agassi: From hot shot to top shot." Boys' Life (June 1996): 6.
Sullivan, Robert. "The teen dream who could wake up U.S. tennis." Sports Illustrated (October 26, 1987): 36.
Wertheim, L. Jon. "What a racket!" Sports Illustrated for Kids (June 1, 2000): 36.
Sketch by Robert Winters