Unless it was not really a tennis match but rather just another figment of some ad agency's wild imagination, America's favorite out-there, happenin' commercial dude, the hipster with the shades, the earring, the spandex undies and the squirrel-tailed hair, the guy who was described in racetrack parlance by one of Fleet Street's finest as "George Michael out of My Little Pony"—yeah, none other than the adorably blow-dried Andre Agassi himself—turned out to be right after all. Image is everything.
Why else would Agassi pick this time—wallowing in a slump, his shots and his psyche in shambles, his ranking having dropped as low as 17—to win his first Grand Slam title? Moreover, after having lost serious face in his three previous Grand Slam finals (twice at the French Open and once at the U.S. Open), after having been ridiculed as some sort of tennis pariah with no substance or heart or nerve, why else would this bizarre yet somehow endearing Las Vegas-bred celeb pick Wimbledon—fair, green, staid Wimbledon—to turn it all around and make one of the more long-awaited breakthroughs in pop culture history?
Image, sweet and simple, babe. Think of the London tabloid possibilities: AGASSI AND ECSTASY! A dynamite look and sound. Everybody heard those debutantes of all ages squealing for Double A all over the All England Club, as if Elvis had returned. This whole deal had a beat the target audience could boogie to. Think the kid can pull down some more endorsements now? Poor tennis—not to mention MTV—it ain't seen nothin' yet. Hey, babe. Andre, like his female counterpart, Steffi Graf, who rolled to her fourth Wimbledon crown, has not left the building.
In as compelling a Wimbledon men's final as has been witnessed in nearly a decade, the slick-handed Agassi courageously remained in the building and on the baseline and left eighth-seeded Goran Ivanisevic, 20, wondering just what had happened to him. As Bjorn Borg had done from the baseline five times before him, Agassi won a Wimbledon title. Final score: 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 1-6 (uh-oh), 6-4 (whew!).
July 12, 1992
It wasn't merely that the 22-year-old Agassi had defeated Boris Becker and John McEnroe—two All England legends who have six Wimbledon championships between them—in the two previous rounds; McEnroe, after all, is over the hill, and Agassi beats Becker in his sleep. No, the crux of the matter came down to the 10th game of the fifth set of the championship round. Ivanisevic, a 6'4", 160-pound rail-splitter from Split, Croatia, had been ripping ace after ace after ace with his low-toss hatchet swing: 11 in the first set, 10 in the fifth, 37 on the day, an astounding 206 for the tournament against such worthies as Ivan Lendl, two-time champion Stefan Edberg and Pete Sampras. Yet there stood Agassi, who for once had not cowered on the grand occasion. Instead he nailed nearly every serve he got a glimpse of right back at Ivanisevic. "It wasn't, like, I didn't expect aces and love games," said Agassi later. "I enjoyed watching Goran's serves myself."
This was only Agassi's second Wimbledon as an, uh, adult. He had bypassed the tournament in 1988, '89 and '90 because of some stupid advice by his handlers while figuring out what color to dye his hair. As this year's fortnight progressed and Agassi looked more and more as if he had been raised on turf, his coach, Nick Bollettieri, kept trying to justify Agassi's absences in previous years by insisting that he "wasn't ready." Grinning, Bollettieri said before the finals, "Now he is. Andre's so strooong. And the hump's off his back, whatever happens."
What already had taken place was the repeated spectacle of Agassi mending fences with Wimbledon officialdom, even while he was throwing his shirts to, and escaping from, the frenzied grasps of all the girls whose teeny-bopper predecessors used to do the same thing to the similarly coiffed Borg. One day Agassi said about playing on Centre Court, "I was scared, nervous, intimidated and excited all at the same time." Another day he spoke of "the crown," meaning the All England title, not the thing that the Wales spouses seemed to be despoiling with their marital spats. "This isn't just a Grand Slam, it's Wimbledon," Agassi kept repeating with all the correct reverence.
He even kept his humor in the often testy exchanges with the press, which had jumped all over the story that the players were kidding Agassi about losing his hair. (Back in the States TV talk show host Dennis Miller had started an Agassi bald watch.) "I started wearing a cap because I wasn't wearing sunglasses," he said. "Sometimes fans like to see the other side of the token." Say what?
For his part, Ivanisevic has a tendency toward clowning—he showed up at a tournament in Stuttgart in February with a Mohawk 'do—and he has taken over as the tour's goofball prince from Ilie Nastase. Mostly, though, the talented but inconsistent Ivanisevic is as unfathomable as his serve. In the last two Wimbledons he lost in the semifinals to Becker and in the second round to the unsinkable (No. 591 on the computer at the time) Nicky Brown of England. The ragin' Croatian on his game: "Serve, serve, serve. Forty aces. Win. Boring." On preparing for Sunday's finals, after he had ripped the fifth-seeded Sampras in the semis with 36 aces: "I never keep my mind so well, so long. I have one more day to do that, then I can relax my brain."
In the fourth set on Sunday, Ivanisevic received a warning from the umpire for swearing in Croatian. Some Yugos watching on TV had phoned in their objections to the All England Club. Ivanisevic, who has been outspoken in his support of Croatia in its civil war with Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, was furious. "Serbs, obviously," he said later. "Did I call the umpire a monkey? Probably."
He took out his wrath on Agassi, pummeling him into the lawn with the loss of only 10 points in the 17-minute fourth set. Then, at 3-3 in the fifth, Agassi was down a break point. He could have folded. The younger tin man would have. But the new lion closed to the net and hit a winning volley on the run. Agassi then hit an ace of his own and eventually held serve. "I just wanted to hang in long enough to make Goran think about it, to serve to save the match," he said.
Which, after all those aces (and at least 25 other service winners), Ivanisevic couldn't do. Agassi had finally met someone in a major finals who was more fragile than he was supposed to be, and he knew it. "I kept telling myself Goran was capable of giving me a couple of free points," said Agassi. "If I could get him down to one final game, I liked my chances."
After holding serve at 15 to take a 5-4 lead, Agassi marched briskly out to deal with Ivanisevic's bullets one more time. But this time Ivanisevic shot blanks. One, two double faults, and the score was 0-30. Ivanisevic fought back to 30-30, but Agassi shakily executed a forehand pass off a weak volley to reach match point.
"Was little bit rushing," said Ivanisevic of his first serve on match point, which was a fault. "I throw ball too high. Was looking for ball. Was thinking too much. I don't know where to serve it. I lose motion. I miss."
Once that first delivery died in the net, everything else happened so quickly. "After you've been through what I have—I didn't hear the fat lady humming," Agassi said. "But now my eyes lit up."
And so came Ivanisevic's second serve, Agassi's backhand return right at him, Ivanisevic's backhand volley into the net. "The next thing I look, nothing, except see guy down on floor," said the loser of the winner. "Oh, no. Unbelievable. I lose Wimbledon. That's it."
The only poor soul Ivanisevic didn't serve off the court and into the umbrella concessions was Graf, who the better she plays at Wimbledon, the more we seem to pay attention to others. Such as Martina Navratilova, who had won six All England titles in a row when Graf came along in 1988 and knocked her off in the finals. And Steffi's own father, Peter, whose tabloid-chronicled extramarital excursions in '90 may have cost her a third straight title. And Monica Seles, who got more press for not playing the tournament in '91 than Graf did for winning it.
Last week Graf whipped up on Gabriela Sabatini and Seles—back-to-back, belly-to-belly; the victims played as if they were done dead already—in about nine minutes and 47 seconds to win once more. You may have heard about it. Then again, you may not have if you were anywhere within range of the ear-splitting performances of Seles, who once again stole the thunder, this time literally, from Graf.
While everyone else, from the All England Club to the tabloids to Navratilova, was in a uproar over Seles's grunting, Ivanisevic took exception to her silence about the war back home. Seles is an ethnic Hungarian from Serbia. "I am playing for me and Croatia," said Ivanisevic, "but she is playing for I don't know what. Nobody knows what she stands for. Maybe she does not want to know her country anymore."
Nobody recalled Sabatini ever discussing human rights violations in Argentina, and to outsiders the reticence of the 18-year-old Seles, who left Yugoslavia for Florida when she was all of 11, seemed reasonable. Nonetheless, on the morning of her semifinal match against Navratilova, Monica and her family had to be evacuated from their rented house after Scotland Yard reported that Croat supporters had mailed a bomb threat to Monica.
By this time Seles was producing more controversy with her grunting. As her noisemaking taxed the eardrums of even the lofty London Times, which could not decide whether she sounded like "feeding time at the zoo" or "strangled bagpipes" and demanded that she shut up, the only mystery was when all of this oppression would come crashing down on her. The hindrance rule in women's tennis is clear: "Continual distraction" of play is subject to a warning and then a penalty point. But was Seles disrupting play? "It's part of my game," she said. "I hate it, I can't help it."
As for the fact that she doesn't grunt in practice—"She can stop it on purpose," said Navratilova—isn't that as natural as the Washington Redskins running through pregame plays without pads? The point is, Seles was grunting when she was in swaddling clothes, when she was beating both Sabatini and Graf to win her third French Open last month and when she played Navratilova 11 times before last week. Nobody formally complained about the grunting then.
Why now? Elements of both sexism and jealousy were evident in the whole charade. McEnroe and Jimmy Connors have groaned for years, and Agassi emits some horrendous guttural bellows—all to little protest. Further, Seles was the hottest player in tennis, having won the last five Grand Slam events she had entered. In none of those tournaments did she have to play in the presence of gruntometers supplied by the tabloid press.
At Wimbledon, Nathalie Tauziat of France also complained about Seles's noisemaking before losing to her 6-1, 6-3. The woman should get a real job; she's simply not good enough to complain. And, oh, did Navratilova squawk just about the time she fell behind 6-2, 2-2. The umpire called Seles to the chair for a warning, and Navratilova wound up winning the second set tiebreaker 7-3 with some exquisite volleys.
In the last set Navratilova again asked the umpire to warn Seles—courtside TV microphones picked up Martina saying of Monica in something out of an Ivana-Marla bitchalogue, "She sounds like a stuck pig!"—and though Seles double-faulted at deuce in the seventh game and lost a 4-2 lead, she kept thrashing Navratilova's serve and approach shots with those double-handed passes off both wings. In the end Seles prevailed 6-4.
To say the contretemps had its effect on Seles in the rain-plagued finals—a rematch of her battle with Graf for the French Open championship, which Seles won 10-8 in the third—is an understatement. "In Paris, Monica was really loud," Graf said with a smile before the match. "Will I complain here? We will see."
Graf didn't have to. Cracking the same deliveries with which she had dispatched Sabatini 6-3, 6-3 in the semifinals with the loss of only eight service points, Graf took apart Seles 6-2, 6-1. Though it was the most one-sided 5½-hour match in history—58 minutes tennis, the rest rain delays—nobody could blame the blowout on Graf, who said she didn't expect "to finish the tournament like that," rolling over her two fiercest rivals as if they were Nathalie Tauziat or somebody. "But I knew I had it in me," she said.
And what was in Seles? For one thing, not a single loud grunt. Everything had finally gotten to the teenager. Without grunting, she had no bounce, no pace on her shots. Without grunting, she was Rapunzel without the hair, Streisand without the nose. "Whatever I tried, they [the shots, presumably] kept not going there," she said with no excuses, no tears.
Flat and listless, Seles was a portrait in dispiritedness—the grunter de-chorded. "I didn't want to think about it," she said of her no-sound persona. "I just thought hopefully I can start [not grunting] somewhere, so I started here."
For much of the fortnight, the most arresting figure in the men's draw was none other than the graying McEnroe, 33, who swaggered all the way into the semifinals of the tournament he has won three times, most recently in 1984. McEnroe had been working with a new coach, former tour player Larry Stefanki, who convinced him that he didn't need topspin, yoga, whole-grain fern sprouts or a course in parapseudomicrobrainscanology to move up in the rankings. He just needed to get into shape.
What McEnroe also needed was a confidence-building victory over a solid opponent, somebody he respected, somebody like another former Wimbledon champ. And when he got it, in five sets over Pat Cash, the 1987 titlist, he didn't believe the match was merely a sentimental "legends" piece—a tennis version of Trevino beating Chi Chi on the Senior PGA Tour—but a sign that he could again be a contender. "A couple of these young guys could drop dead, somebody get struck by lightning, anything might happen, and I could get in there," he said.
Sure enough, McEnroe's draw opened up nicely when Andrei Olhovskiy, who was ranked somewhere in the top four thousand in Russia and hadn't won a match since January, upset top-seeded Jim Courier. Actually, McEnroe's most impressive victory was a 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 fourth-round dismantling of 16th-seeded David Wheaton, who reached the semifinals in 1991. Then came Olly, followed by ninth-seeded Guy Forget, both of whom McEnroe eliminated in straight sets as well.
Against Forget, Mac even vented Court One with some vintage verbal blasts in the midst of saving six set points. Otherwise he was properly subdued, squiring wife Tatum and son Kevin around the premises and acting respectfully toward the place that once seemed to him to be "the pits of the world." Twice he actually knelt on the greensward.
One would have thought Wimbledon's favorite son had suddenly become the old American rebel were it not for the shrieking from the multitudes of English schoolgirls who mobbed a young American rebel every time he hove his frosted locks into view. Once poles apart, McEnroe and Agassi are now friends and Davis Cup teammates. At Roland Garros they played doubles, reaching the quarterfinals, and in London they practiced together regularly.
"Mac told me I didn't have to serve and volley to win with my game," Agassi said. "He shortened my stroke, showed me how on the grass every point counts and the importance of staying in points. I don't know why, but I really like the guy."
"That's garbage," McEnroe said with a laugh. "These young guys always say how honored they are to play me, when what they really want to do is kick my ass."
Which is about what happened to him against Agassi, who won 6-4, 6-2, 6-3. Not since the salad days of Borg and Connors has a returner so punished McEnroe's southpaw sidewinders. "Andre's taken the return to another level," said McEnroe. Having practiced so much with Mac, Agassi was in a comfort zone against him. "But still," said McEnroe, "the guy's passing was incredible. The ball came back so fast, it threw my system off. My system was going crazy."
In light of Agassi's magnificent performances against McEnroe and Ivanisevic, surely he will be buoyed by a new respect from the public. What's more, though Agassi seldom mingles with other players, the manner in which Ivanisevic climbed over the net and embraced him spoke far more about Agassi's status on tour than his hot-stud, merchandise-mart persona. Becker has always held Agassi in the highest regard. McEnroe talked last week of how "inquisitive" and "very smart" he has become.
So, Andre, what was that postmatch embrace of Ivanisevic all about? "I thought Goran looked great in his shorts," Agassi said, back in his Vegas mode.
Get off it, Hairball. You were laughing. You were crying. You had hammered off all those labels of poseur and quitter and had sucked it up to win the grandest of Grand Slam tournaments, and Ivanisevic told you, "Listen, man, you tried so hard, you deserve it." So what was that like?
"Any time you go five sets fighting so hard to kill each other, you have so much respect," said Agassi. "You have to be an athlete. It's a bond you develop that you just can't explain."
Unless you're the new Wimbledon champion. Then you don't have to.