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? On the contrary, Agassi's sweet-punk/smiling-predator image seems just about perfect for the role created long ago by America's two previous tennis heroes, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. So what if Agassi wears Christ on the sleeve of his Nike shirt while blithely dismissing a political uprising in Paraguay that cost a few dozen people their lives? Hey, give the kid a break. He's only 12 years old. (Well, 18.) He grew up in a cave. (Well, Las Vegas.) And he has never been to high school. (Well, the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy.)
Bottom line: Agassi (pronounced AAH-gus-see) 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—not counting Contra-aiding lieutenant colonels—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 5'11", 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" (as he was described recently by someone too terrified of the new Agassian power bloc to be identified)?
Most likely this bright-eyed, bushy-maned son of an Iranian immigrant contains elements of both. For instance, to see out the old year of 1988, during which he won six tournaments and earned some $2 million (much of that off the court), did Agassi celebrate at Caesars with Frank, Sammy, Liza, Tony Newley, Jessica Hahn, Buddy Hackett and toga-clad thousands? He did not. He packed up several pizzas and six-packs of diet soda, his girlfriend, Amy Moss, and another young couple—oh yeah, at the last minute he bought a state-of-the-art tent and some sleeping bags on sale—and drove his mom's Range Rover from Vegas to Malibu to spend the evening on the beach listening to the clock tick down on '88 and the waves roll in. Two days later they all sat in the stands watching the Rose Bowl, as anonymous as peas in a pod.
March 13, 1989
This setting was only a few minutes, and a few months, from a tour event in Los Angeles, where last September the crowd turned on Agassi, causing the first real crisis in his two-year pro career. In a second-round match against Mexico's Jorge Lozano, Agassi continued his disturbing practice of tanking a set when behind early in order to get on with his expected victory. When he did it again in the semifinals against John McEnroe, winning 6-4, 0-6, 6-4, McEnroe blew up, calling Agassi's ploy "insulting, immature, a cop-out." Added Mac: "His act is wearing thin. I don't think that's showing respect for your opponent. And it's not good for tennis either. But I expect to see a lot more of it before we see less." Last week at the WCT Finals in Dallas, Agassi defaulted during the second set of his match against McEnroe, claiming he had aggravated a muscle pull in his thigh. Agassi had not limped noticeably during the match and was booed by the crowd when he left the court. Once again, McEnroe was irate: "It's bizarre, it's unbelievable. People would have respected him more if he put in the effort. But it seemed a foregone conclusion that he wasn't going to play."
"God help him when he really starts losing," says Ion Tiriac, the glowering Romanian who manages Boris Becker, among others. "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." Which is exactly what Agassi has done in three tournaments over the past three weeks.
Australia's Mark Woodforde, meanwhile, revealed in L.A. that there was also growing displeasure among the tour players over Agassi's clapping, posturing and grandstanding demeanor on the court. Other players believe that nasty locker-room confrontations are inevitable if Agassi doesn't tone it down. Imagine Woodforde's shock in his quarterfinal match with Agassi when, in the middle of Woodforde's own argument with the umpire over a line call, Agassi loudly reprimanded Woodforde, saying, "Leave the umpire alone. He's trying to do his job like the rest of us." Or words to that effect.
Tennis pros just don't do that to one another. In truth, given a different opponent in a different time and place than an even-tempered Aussie willing to cut a juvenile some slack in his home country, a sincere punch-out might have been the result.
And if that wasn't enough, Agassi, who lost in the L.A. final to Mikael Pernfors, spiced up his public postmatch speech by blaming his defeat on "the long year" and a "pinched nerve" in his neck, and by calling a spectator who had given him a rough time "a jerk."
We've all got to understand, of course, that Agassi is still in the process of learning "how to handle all the extemporaneous stuff," as tour player and Davis Cup teammate Ken Flach puts it. The tanks, for instance. "They shouldn't be taken as insults," Flach says. "What they're all about is his confidence. Bagging sets to get going works for him. That's just Andre. He's spontaneous, an instantaneous kind of person. If he wasn't like that, he'd lose his edge."
Being Just Andre means blowing kisses to the crowd, belting balls into the stands and handing out haberdashery—or even a pair of his with-it, signature denim shorts—to the courtside maidens. It means applauding opponents' winners, although this happens almost exclusively when Agassi is in the process of administering a severe butt-whipping. (It should be noted that, during Agassi's meteoric rise in less than three years from No. 230 to No. 3—his highest ranking, from which he slipped a notch two weeks ago—such whippings have been administered to only three players in the Top 10.) "Hopefully, Agassi will stop embarrassing players," says McEnroe, another Cup teammate. "People don't like to get their faces rubbed in it."
Being Just Andre also means Federal Expressing chicken fingers from a Las Vegas restaurant called Tramps to his childhood bosom buddy. Perry Rogers, now a sophomore at Georgetown University, at the end of every semester or "whenever I'm stressed out and in a financial bind," says Rogers. "Look, Andre is the warmest, purest, most loyal friend a guy could have. He thinks deep thoughts. When he became a Christian two years ago, he shared his feelings with me. I wasn't surprised he would devote his life to God, only that he came to that decision on his own. Any of these negatives in tennis must have come from his naivetè."
McEnroe believes the players' suprisingly tolerant response to Agassi's smiling, nonchalant nastiness actually shows their failure to understand that he is insulting them. "I was more straightforward." said Mac. But this new guy Agassi is nothing if not open with his disdain:
•Catching Martin Jaite's good serve in a Davis Cup match in Argentina? "He had no idea the commotion that would cause," says Rogers. "Andre called me from Buenos Aires the night it happened, worried that anything good that people felt about him before had been destroyed."
•Announcing after beating Jimmy Connors 6-2, 7-6, 6-1 at the U.S. Open that he had told a friend he expected to win "three, three and three," and adding, "I didn't know Jimmy would have that much in him"? The friend was Rogers, who says, "It wasn't lack of respect. Andre will say stuff like that all the time. It's like a prizefighter psyching himself up. Hey, you know other players talk like that. They just don't do it in public."
•Humiliating with taunts and gestures an overmatched Hugo Chapacu of Paraguay during the recent U.S. Davis Cup victory in Fort Myers, Fla.? "It was time to rub it in. I'm not making fun of him" Agassi said. "I'm making fun of Paraguay." Earlier he had voiced his opinion of that morning's bloody coup in Paraguay with this nifty sound bite: "I don't even know how to spell 'coup.' "
"Andre is deep, perceptive, reflective," Rogers says. "We'll go over my business law cases and he'll predict the judge's decision every time. Look, I'm surrounded by brilliant people whose life is reading books, but Andre is smarter than any of them. His life is 'I want to know.' "
Now that he has traversed the globe, Agassi's vast knowledge presumably extends beyond cowboys and Indians. But when he played Davis Cup matches in Peru last year amid threats of an attack by neo-Maoist guerrillas who practice some of the ancient customs of the Incas, Agassi said, "What's an Inca?"
Well, what in heaven's name is an Agassi? If "naive" is as good a working definition as any, it has been reinforced by the nearly paranoiac web of security being spun around the young phenom by still another of tennis's tedious coteries. In Agassi's case, the obligatory "brain trust" doesn't seem to evince either much brains or much trust. A remark Phillip Agassi once made to The Christian Science Monitor is instructive. Phil, now 25, a former fringe player on the satellite tour, is Andre's brother, traveling manager and sometime bodyguard. Phil told the Monitor that Andre is still the baby in the family, "and it's not as hard keeping him focused as people might think when they see his hair."
Among the other prominent working members of the Agassi entourage is Andre's father, Emmanuel, a.k.a. Mike, who boxed for Iran in the 1948 and '52 Olympics. (Initially, Dad Agassi was invariably identified as being from Iran. In recent newspaper accounts he has become "an Armenian who was born in Iran," which may or may not distance him from the Ayatollah.) In any event, Mike Agassi emigrated to Chicago in 1952 but became so immersed in tennis that he decided to move his family to a warmer climate and settled in Las Vegas; he is now a captain in the showroom at Bally's Casino Resort on the Vegas Strip. Completing the lineup are Agassi's deeply tanned and reputedly famous coach, Nick Bollettieri, and, finally, his agent with International Management Group, Bill Shelton. An exceptionally tailored fellow, Shelton has been around, flitting from tennis-camp and racket-company jobs to positions at ProServ and Advantage International, the other top management firms, before landing at IMG, and he should know better. Know better, that is, than to:
1) Infuriate Agassi's own shoe company, Nike. The folks from Swoosh, who have been with Agassi since the creation, recently wanted to bring out a new Andre-model blue jeans, but Shelton nixed the idea and went with a French line instead. "What a rocket scientist!" says an agent who is a rival of Shelton's. "Nike's got to be upset. Agassi's got the slick new Wake Up the Country Club commercials out, and he bags the jeans deal with the meal ticket, Nike, to go foreign. Brilliant!"
2) Anger several racket manufacturers in a bidding war for Agassi's endorsement, at the end of which he dropped Prince (whom Shelton himself used to work for) and signed with a Belgian company, Donnay. The Belgians, desperate for an American sprout, have promised rackets of various hues—the Agassi model being red, blue and yellow—and a contract reported to run anywhere from three to six years at a cool million dollars a year. One losing bidder dropped out at what he called "the threshold of pain," saying that "this kid is more than just a huge gamble." Another bidder reportedly passed when Shelton insisted that Bollettieri and racket stringer Warren Bosworth be included as consultants in order to complete the deal.
3) Upset Wimbledon and Australian Open officials by holding Agassi out of those Grand Slam events. Last year a "tired" Agassi stayed away from Wimbledon, and then played nonstop Boston to Stuttgart to Buenos Aires. Agassi plans to skip Wimbledon again this summer. "I don't know why everybody puts so much emphasis on Wimbledon," Shelton said, defending his client's decision. "It's just another tournament like the rest. It's just not on his schedule. Andre needs a rest between the clay and hard-court seasons. He'll play Wimbledon. Wimbledon is going to be around." But the omission of Wimbledon from his busy, busy schedule was hardly the only baffling decision. "Nobody in the industry thinks they have any plan, any strategy, any schedule, any idea what they're doing," says one high US. Tennis Association official. "Shelton's in way over his head."
4) Embarrass promoters. The day after the U.S. Davis Cup team's victory over Paraguay, Agassi was scheduled to fly to Canada for two nights of exhibition matches against McEnroe. At the U.S. celebration party on Sunday night in Fort Myers, however, Canadians who had been officiating the Cup tie told the Agassi contingent of the sub-zero temperatures in the north country. At 11 o'clock the next morning—eight hours before Agassi was to take the court at Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens—Shelton called the Canadian promoter, Andrzej Kepinski, and said Agassi had bronchitis and would not be appearing in the exhibitions. Kepinski, furious and panicky at the same time, immediately put in a call to Connors, who was provided a chartered jet so that he could rush to Canada and fill the card.
That same day, back in Florida, the Canadian officials were stunned to observe Agassi frolicking poolside at the Sonesta Sanibel Harbour Resort. Shelton meanwhile was telling different people different stories about Agassi's whereabouts. Kepinski, who had to shell out $80,000 in additional expenses for Connors because Agassi didn't show, sent a private investigator to Florida to check things. "Who does Agassi think he is?" said McEnroe. "He's not supposed to pull this kind of stunt until he's 25."
5) Cross the media. One national tennis reporter calls the obstinate Shelton "Mr. No, No, No." Indeed, Shelton refused to let Agassi talk to SI. (Phil Agassi's no better. It's one thing when Phil doesn't know who Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times is. It's quite another when he treats the preeminent sports columnist in the land "like I was applying for a job," as Murray puts it. "I wasn't even annoyed. I was just doing a piece for the tournament in L.A. But the brother was so curt, truculent. Finally it got to be too damn much trouble.")
In Florida a couple of weeks ago a local reporter asked Phil who the "real" Andre Agassi was. "A drug addict," sneered the overbearing brother. Sarcastically. We hope.
On his own, Andre couldn't be nicer or more cooperative, almost too sincere to be real. But someone has the notion that he will progress only if accompanied by a sidekick carrying a protective shield and a scabbard. Maybe it's Shelton, or his brother, or his father. Or even Bollettieri. All of the swarthy Campmaster's past baseline prodigies have met mostly with failure on fast surfaces. Although Shelton was the mouthpiece who defended the move, the pass-up-Wimbledon decision smacks of Bollettieri's influence. In fact, some observers say that Shelton is too much the toady to be making policy generally and that the agent, a close friend of Bollettieri's for years, is surely beholden to the coach for his association with Agassi.
Like Connors, with whom he is most often compared in terms of background, style and work-the-crowd behavior, Agassi developed a sort of us-against-the world mentality apparently nurtured by his parents. Even Phil, who played at UNLV, blames his never making the NCAA tournament on, vaguely, "politics and politicians."
The stocky progenitor of the clan, Mike, 55, used to be the scourge of the USTA's Intermountain section back when his kids were growing up—an angry man whose history of conflict with both officials and parents on the junior circuit is well documented by formal letters of protest against him and his children. Besides Phil and Andre, Mike and Elizabeth (a.k.a. Betty) Agassi's family includes Rita, 28 and married to tennis legend Pancho Gonzales, and Tami, a sophomore at Tyler (Texas) Junior College. All four grew up on the family court, where Mike usually had nine or 10 ball machines going nonstop.
"Meet my little world champion," is how Mike would introduce Andre to friends when his youngest was barely four years old. Then the child would go out and hit with Connors, as he did on his fourth birthday, or perform for crowds at the Alan King Classic at Caesars Palace, where he once hit with Bjorn Borg.
"Mike always said what he felt—and in colorful language," says Gil Roberts, the former president of the USTA Intermountains. "His children weren't angels, either. All knew how to swear. They weren't bad kids; it's just that Mike always bent the rules a bit. Coaching during matches and things."
Throughout his children's years in the juniors, the elder Agassi complained about tournament match times or lousy draws or unfair treatment. Once Mike claimed his tires had been slashed by a saboteur involved in the tournament. Parental postmatch handshakes were practically nonexistent when an Agassi was involved. On one occasion, despite his boxing experience, Mike lost a fistfight with an irate player on a nearby court who took exception to Mike's profane goading of his kids. When Georgetown's Rogers was 11, before he knew Andre well and became his best friend, he played him in a junior match and remembers the elder Agassi timing him as the players switched sides. "I thought, Wow, he's putting the clock on me," says Rogers. "The kids liked Mike, but the parents all thought of him as this psycho tennismonger."
Agassi Sr. was in the habit of threatening other parents. Eventually he was barred from Spanish Oaks tennis club in Las Vegas. "He [Mike] said he was going to hire someone to take care of me," says Chuck Kellogg, the head pro at Spanish Oaks. "He'd get somebody to break my legs. But he threatened a lot of people in town, so you ignored that. He's changed now. He's got what he wanted."
Ultimately, even though Andre could beat all the other juniors, he hadn't played the tournaments required to earn the Intermountains endorsement as No. 1 to represent his section in national competition. Still, Mike pushed his youngest son and finally asked Roberts about sending the 13-year-old boy across the continent to Bollettieri's in Florida. "It's an Army camp," Roberts told Mike, "but the kid will make it because of you."
"My father saw this story on Nick on 60 Minutes where it showed him making these little kids cry and everything," Andre jokingly told The New York Times, "and [he] thought that was the place for me."
But it was no joke at the time. Agassi left school midway through the eighth grade. "I was frightened at first," says Sidney Franklin, principal of Cashman Junior High, Andre's old school. "I thought he should get in at least the eighth grade. That's the most important socialization year."
The night before Andre left Las Vegas for Florida, he and Rogers rented a chauffeured limo and cruised the Strip for hours, reminiscing. "It was like he was a condemned guy," says Rogers.
"I missed out on a lot," Agassi once told John Henderson of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "But I can always talk to my best friend when I want to know what it's like to be a normal teenager." Rogers remembers his friend calling long-distance and talking for hours, homesick: "It was tough on him—a young kid like that, so far away."
Friends and family downplay the state of Andre's temper back then, but his was truly a mean, vulgar attitude. 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. There were off-the-fence numbers, into-the-pool drownings, smashed-against-the-court jobs. Agassi went through 40 Prince rackets a year—oh, how the company wishes he were still doing so!—and about as many bizarre, up-against-the-wall, rebellious haircuts.
One Christmas Agassi came home with a butched, bleach-striped cut so radical that Rogers didn't even recognize him. When he wasn't shave-creaming half the academy, Andre was showing up for the final of a tournament in Pensacola wearing earrings, makeup and jeans—a nifty combination of Alice Marble and Alice Cooper. Nasty? If he got high-sitters in matches, he would aim for opponents' heads. Or mouths. "He was a bit of a punk, in trouble at the academy, never much of a student," Jim Courier, his roommate there, has said. "If Andre had continued where he was heading, he would have gone down the toilet."
Rogers knew what was happening. "Don't you see?" he says. "This was the ultimate slap in the face to everybody. Andre was saying, 'I don't care about this game. I don't want to be here.' He saw me in Vegas, living it up and having fun. And here he was missing everything, not growing, losing. He was nearly crying on the phone once. 'What am I doing this for?' he said. He was scared. He was scared he was going through all this to be a tennis player for nothing. He was scared he wasn't going to make it."
Even after Agassi blew off the juniors—just flat left them in the dust—and turned pro (on May 1, 1986, two days after his 16th birthday), he continued to be something of an enigmatic monster. In the spring of '86, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported that Agassi criticized his opponent in the Nevada Open, pounded balls against the fence, crudely wiggled his racket between his legs and, when the crowd applauded his opponent, muttered, "Shut up."
Contrast this troubled, unhappy soul with the joyous, no-care, no-swear role model of today, and one wonders what happened. Sports psychologist Jim Loehr has written that Agassi's emotional transformation from a temperamental, nervous misfit to a gent of poise, perspective and maturity is the most amazing he has seen. And those close to Agassi say that what happened to him was the Bible.
Andre had attended First Good Shepherd Lutheran School in Las Vegas as a youngster, so he was familiar with the Scriptures. Then in the winter of '87 he received guidance from Fritz Glauss, the pro tour's traveling minister, with whom he found himself spending more and more time. "He earned my trust," Agassi has said. "I was facing a lot of questions in my life. I knew there had to be more important things than tennis, money and fame. I thought I'd give the Bible a chance."
Through conversations and Bible reading with the tour's other teenage star, 17-year-old Michael Chang, as well as with Mary Jane Wheaton, whose son David is another Bollettierian, Agassi came around to Christianity. "Andre was afraid he would have to give up tennis if he became a Christian," Wheaton says. "I told him to be a Christian is not necessarily to be a religious, pious-type person."
At the U.S. Indoors in Memphis last February, Agassi met Moss, a Mississippi State student and a volunteer driver who shared his beliefs, and the two have been going steady ever since. "Amy was amazed; she never thought she'd meet a born-again tennis player" says Rogers.
"The religious thing is no facade," says Flach. "Most kids Andre's age get crude and raunchy in the locker room, but when the [Davis Cup] team sits around shooting the breeze, there's no talk of beers or babes from Andre. The groupies are everywhere, but he's not into that. He's really devoted to his girl. And he doesn't flaunt his faith, asking us to go to meetings or anything. He doesn't go to R-rated movies, either. I don't know if his mother washed his mouth out with soap or what, but whatever happened, that's the way he is. The most risquè he ever gets is suggesting we practice with our shirts off. He actually demanded we take a vote to have shirtless practices. Andre does want his tan."
Last summer Agassi explained his conversion to Christianity. "To me there are only two directions in life, one that leads to helping others and one that leads to selfish purposes," he told reporters. "I wasn't on my way to helping others. I was concerned with myself. I'm not saying there's a relationship between God and winning. Life doesn't offer that kind of promise. But what [Christianity] has offered in my life is peace of mind and the understanding that it's no big deal if you get beat."
It's fairly easy for Agassi to say "no big deal" when he doesn't have to face that whiplash of a forehand that sends shivers up and down the tour. "Andre hits the ball harder than anyone else by far," says Jimmy Arias, who used to have the hardest forehand in tennis. "It's not even close. It's like a slap shot, the kind of shot I hit if I'm mad about something and I smash the ball over the fence. That's his regular stroke."
That forehand has become one of the more deadly weapons of tennis's Open era. The funny thing about his exaggerated looped backswing with the elbow flying is that it goes against all laws of teaching, as does finishing with most of his weight on the back foot. But with his hip rotation initiating the power, his arm transferring the enormous torque and his wrist snapping so swiftly and emphatically—again, a no-no according to the form book—he generates tremendous power. His brother-in-law, Gonzales, points out that this method—"he sort of hangs the racket back and lags it behind the body like a slingshot"—puts less pressure on his elbow than the conventional stroke. Agassi has never had an elbow injury.
Not that he suffers much wear and tear in practice. The Davis Cup team marvels at Agassi's match readiness even after barely token workouts. U.S. captain Tom Gorman usually stresses tough, two-hour sessions, but he had to adjust when Agassi came aboard. "If the kid works hard to a fine-tune one day, he doesn't seem to need to work at all the next," says Gorman. "In that icy wind at Buenos Aires he warmed up with two or three forehands and backhands and a few serves and said let's go. Then he routed Jaite. It was amazing."
Agassi's natural ability "disgusts me," says Flach, laughing. "His hand-eye must be extraordinary. It's just the power of visualization. He just visualizes himself kicking ass and taking names. Now he's got the big first serve, he's varying his pace, his shot selection is vastly improved. He knows when to loop the ball and when to smoke it. Anybody can see his feel for the drop and the lob. And considering his power, his lack of unforced errors is remarkable."
Not everyone is enamored of Agassi's game, however. Tiriac, for instance, has this to say: "Agassi could revolutionize the game, but I hope he doesn't. If a player hits as hard as he can all the time, matches will turn into shooting contests and the beauty of the game will disappear. His is a limited game that has nothing to do with finesse. He's never going to be a serve-and-volleyer or have the fluid touch of a Nastase or the sensitivity of a McEnroe. I just hope everyone doesn't start playing like him.
"Boris [Becker], at 17 and 18, was a completely different breed," Tiriac continues. "If Agassi is a pop singer, Boris is a symphonic orchestra. There are so many pop singers that I cannot remember their names. But there are only two or three great philharmonics."
After Paul Annacone lost to Agassi in the finals at Stratton Mountain last July, he said, "It was like feeding a ball machine." Still, feeding the frenzy of admirers and detractors alike is what Agassi seems to live for. "I really enjoy his spirit," Yannick Noah says. "It's great seeing somebody having a good time and not taking anything for granted."
Agassi has said his goals are "to make the other players hope they never have to play me again." And further, "to entertain the audience, that's what they come to see." He has also said, "There's nothing mental about tennis. Once I get out there my body takes over."
Maybe soon this daring young man on the multiple trapezes of stardom, religion and contradiction will finally risk the big stunt, outgrow his naivetè and take control of the direction of his career.