Image Is Not Everything

Andre Agassi found that out the hard way during a stump that has left him fraught with self-doubt
May 10, 1992

Andre Agassi is a gilded talent whose chief accomplishment during his 22 years is wealth, whose diet is scandalous and whose training regimen is poor. He drains Cokes for breakfast and wolfs Big Macs at every other meal. He really wants to be a champion, but is he too fatally attracted to synthetics to attain his goal?

Agassi may have earned a couple of trillion dollars in endorsement income and prize money, but he does not have a Grand Slam title and he isn't ranked in the Top 5—two achievements that would make him feel better about having all that cash. Trouble is, the money and the fame came before he had done all that much to deserve them, and now he's trapped in his own teen idolatrousness.

By his own estimation, Agassi has bought at least 25 cars, including a Lamborghini, a Ferrari and a handful of Cadillacs. If Agassi likes you, or if you are related to him, he tends to buy you a car. So there was something extremely silly-touching-sweet about the birthday present he got last week from his girlfriend, Wendy Stewart, whom he has known since he was seven. She gave him a bicycle built for two.

Moments like that provide Agassi with his only real glimpses of clarity. His birthday, on April 29, occasioned another bolt of reality. "My accomplishments do not live up to my tennis game," he said. Yet companies continue to offer Agassi endorsement deals and appearance sums large enough to make even his financially jaded eyes blink. Three times this year he has received tournament guarantees of $300,000—just for showing up. Donnay, the company that makes the racket he plays with, has recently signed him to a contract worth $20 million over 10 years. "Most people have to work really hard and win some big matches, and then they get money and popularity," said Agassi. "For me it has been the reverse of everybody else. The exact opposite."

A year ago Agassi was ranked fourth in the world. Now he is out of the Top 10 for the first time since 1988 and struggling to break out of the worst slump of his seven-year career. He took a step in the right direction last week in Atlanta, where he defeated Pete Sampras, who is most formidable on fast surfaces, to win the AT&T Challenge on clay and raise his ranking from 16 To 11. To be sure, Atlanta was the weakest of the week's three ATP tournaments—the lion's share of the world's top clay-courters were playing either in Madrid or Munich—but for a player who had advanced as far as the quarterfinals in only one of the previous seven tournaments he had entered this year (box, page 36), the victory was not insignificant.

Agassi's demeanor, once that of a loud and terrible child, has softened into a gauzy uncertainty, an impression heightened by his floating peroxided-blond locks. He is an airy creature, despite the muscle he has layered over his hummingbird build as if to reassure himself that he is a person of substance. Is it any wonder that Agassi, who once proclaimed for an ad, "Image is everything," suddenly feels like a piece of flimsy footage? "Like I've been edited in," he said last week.

Still, he is growing up. He has matured into a rather gentlemanly, thoughtful guy, a polite door opener and a check grabber who has awakened to at least some of the excesses in his life. He is about to sell most of his more extravagant cars, and at his relatively unassuming three-bedroom home on a Las Vegas golf course, his only real luxury is a video-arcade game room. "Right now I'm at a point where I want to cut away everything," he said. "More and more I want to cut away everything except for me and the tennis."

In short, Agassi is experiencing a full-blown crisis of confidence. His normally penetrating strokes have been tentative, and his strategy has been riddled by doubt. Even his facial expression on court has been, as he describes it, "panicky." At Indian Wells in March, he lost in straight sets to 10th-ranked Emilio Sanchez in the third round. The next week, at the Lipton, he lost in the second round to No. 59 Bryan Shelton, again in straight sets. It was more of the same two weeks ago in Tampa, where he fell to 77th-ranked Franco Davin and left the tournament grounds without saying a word, near tears.

During his decline, Agassi has experimented with different strings strung at different tensions, changed his serve and footwork, changed them back again, embarked upon a low-fat diet, quit it, hired a new coach—serve-and-volley specialist Brian Teacher, to augment his longtime teacher, Nick Bollettieri—and then quit him, too. Finally, Agassi took two weeks off. He did away with all the experiments and arrived in Atlanta to begin building toward the French Open, which starts later this month, with a renewed determination to hit the ball with conviction and an urgent sense that the time had come to turn his game around. Still, Agassi's psyche is much too frail to portend any residual dividends from last week's victory.

"I think I need to come to terms with exactly what makes me tick," he said in Atlanta. "I go through stages where it seems no one can beat me, and I go through stages where it seems anyone can beat me. I need to zero in on that. I'm moving into an age where I have to focus on what I want to accomplish in the next five years."

Agassi, who reached No. 3 in the world in 1988, is currently only the fourth-or fifth-best American. He lags behind the No. 1 player on the computer, Jim Courier, whom he used to whip regularly at Bollettieri's tennis academy in Bradenton, Fla.; Sampras, who's No. 3 and the 1990 U.S. Open champion; and '89 French Open champion Michael Chang, who is No. 6. Even 15th-ranked Aaron Krickstein, who upset Agassi in the first round of last year's U.S. Open, is probably playing better tennis than Agassi right now. "My ranking deserves to be slipping," said Agassi, "and it may not stop here."

Jimmy Arias, a Bollettieri-bred prodigy who reached No. 5 in 1984, empathizes with Agassi's travails. Arias, 27, is ranked 134 and is trying to come back from surgery to remove scar tissue from his wrist. When they play the same tournament, as they did last week, the two men often dine together. Arias does his best to revive Agassi's confidence.

"The middle age of tennis is when you're 21 to 25," said Arias. "No one roots for you then. They root for the old and young. You're just run of the mill. I've been trying for 10 years to play tennis with the same confidence I had in my teens. I haven't been able to do it. It will be interesting to see what he's made of, whether he's a fighter. His psyche is more fragile than anyone thinks. If I jokingly said, 'You can't hit a forehand for——,' he'd freak out."

Agassi has needed especially large doses of reassurance since the ascension of Courier, to whom he lost last year's French Open final after leading two sets to one. That was a wrenching defeat, Agassi's third in a Grand Slam final. "I think it still kills him," said Arias.

Agassi thinks that that loss is at the root of his funk. "It felt so unfair," he said. "It made me doubt, it hurt my confidence, it made me second-guess myself. And it wasn't until last week that I said, 'I'm done with that.' "

Agassi's tenuous self-assurance mystifies Sampras, a Davis Cup teammate. "It's confusing," says Sampras. "I watch him play Davis Cup, and it's mind-boggling to me that he doesn't play like that on tour."

Indeed, Agassi is unbeaten in his last five Davis Cup ties, going back to 1990. "I think Davis Cup is bigger than my confusions or doubts or hang-ups," said Agassi. "All I think about is running my little butt to every ball as fast as I can and hitting it as hard as I can."

It's possible that Agassi's slump is no great mystery. It may well come down to the fact that he is simply not fit enough. "I think if he starts working a little bit harder," says Sampras, "I don't want to be critical, but maybe he's got to prepare better or something."

Agassi's steadfast allegiance, if not addiction, to junk food dates back at least as far as the 1988 French Open, where he made his first big splash by reaching the semifinals. Agassi dined at a McDonald's every night. "He thinks that's why he did so well," says Sampras.

On a flight last December to Lyons, where the U.S. was to face France in the Davis Cup finals, Sampras was both appalled and amused when a flight attendant served Agassi and Stewart cheeseburgers. Agassi had called ahead to order a special meal. After Sampras voiced some skepticism that a cheeseburger was a proper training diet, Agassi launched into his normal patter, stating that cheeseburgers contain "your four basic food groups." In Lyons, Agassi was so disdainful of French food that he satisfied his hunger by eating candy most of the trip. "Big bags of Reese's and Snickers," recalls Sampras with amazement.

Yet Agassi steadfastly resists every attempt at discipline. He is convinced that one reason his game has come a cropper is that he let others sway him. "They hound me," he said last week. "They hound me about my diet, about practice, about getting massages. I'm sorry to say I made the mistake of listening to them. Everybody's an expert."

He went on a low-fat diet for three weeks, but it ended after he suffered cramps during his loss to Sanchez. He then practiced relentlessly for hours to improve his conditioning but soon felt he had lost his freshness. Agassi protests that there must be a "happy medium," but, for now anyway, that seems to consist of merely reverting to his old habits, for better or for worse.

Consider his preparation for Atlanta. After his two-week layoff, Agassi put in only two 45-minute sessions with Bollettieri in Las Vegas. He then took a red-eye flight that arrived in Atlanta at 7 a.m. on April 28, the day of his opening-round match, slept until 2 p.m., hit a few balls and beat Mikael Pernfors in straight sets that night. "And couldn't have hit the ball better," said Agassi.

For dinner he ordered a chicken sandwich with cheese and bacon, a large bowl of chili and a large platter of fries. "And a Coke and a cup of coffee," he told the waiter. When the coffee arrived, 'he poured in a packet of Sweet 'N Low and two packets of sugar. "And I feel like I'm holding back," he said. For dessert, he had apple pie and ice cream.

The next morning he ate breakfast at Burger King. He had a scrambled egg, a sausage sandwich and a large Coke. He practiced for his match, which would be that evening, by playing 18 holes of golf.

Agassi plays golf the way he plays tennis—with an odd lack of conformity. A righthanded tennis player, he swings a golf club lefty. He took a couple of lessons once. "But I didn't really like them," he said as he stroked a two-iron 200 yards from the practice tee in Atlanta. "I'm not very coachable." Bollettieri, standing nearby, merely rolled his eyes.

Agassi has good intentions. He just has an amazing knack for taking all of the wrong advice. "I have an uncanny ability to make things harder for myself," he said. "I also have an uncanny ability to make people think I'm stupid."

The latter quality makes him say things like "What's the Tower of London?" The question is asked so earnestly that it is hard to make fun of him.

In truth, Agassi is not stupid. He at least knows enough to make fun of himself. "Is the Louvre like an amusement park?" he said, smiling. In everyday conversation he displays none of the artifice of his appearance. He says he is a sweet-natured rube, "a spoiled American who likes my baseball and my Taco Bell." He has only been to the theater once. He and Stewart saw Les Misèrables in London last summer during Wimbledon. Agassi twisted in his seat and strained to peer into the orchestra pit. "Where's the band?" he asked. Agassi and Stewart left at intermission, or "halftime," as he referred to it.

Still, that Stewart got him to go was a sign of progress. "A year ago, I wouldn't even had thought of going," Agassi said.

So if Agassi has lately seemed less certain of who he is, he is at least intent on knowing who he might become. The old persona got into just a little too much trouble anyway. "When things are great, they couldn't be better, and when they aren't, they couldn't be worse," he said. "Sometimes I think I dig holes for myself to prove I'm alive. I do it because I'm afraid of becoming numb. I may doubt myself in the short term, but not in the long. I'll be fine."

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TWO PHOTOSDAVID WALBERGLast week in Atlanta, Bollettieri and Stewart saw Agassi win his first tournament since July. PHOTOSYGMAIn 1989 a determined Agassi gave physical fitness a try. Now, he would rather try fries. PHOTODAVID WALBERGAgassi had it made in the shade in Atlanta, but until then this year had been a scorcher.

Agassi's Decline
Beginning with his "wrenching" loss at the French Open last June, Agassi had won only one tournament before his triumph in Atlanta last week.

TOURNAMENT

LOST TO

ROUND

RANKING

French Open

Jim Courier

Final

4

Wimbledon

David Wheaton

Quarters

5

Washington (won)

6

Canadian Open

Petr Korda

Second

6

Cincinnati

Brad Gilbert

Third

6

Indianapolis

Fabrice Santoro

Third

6

U.S. Open

Aaron Krickstein

First

7

Sydney Indoor

Goran Ivanisevic

Quarters

8

Tokyo Indoor

Goran Ivanisevic

Quarters

8

ATP Championship

Jim Courier

Semis

8

Milan Indoor

Jakob

Hlasek First

11

Brussels Indoor

Alexander Volkov

Second

14

Scottsdale

Marc Rosset

Second

13

Indian Wells

Emilio Sanchez

Third

12

Lipton International

Bryan Shelton

Second

14

Barcelona

Jacco Eltingh

Second

16

Tampa

Franco Davin

Quarters

17

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)