As Real As He Gets

Andre Agassi, an image in search of an identity, roared back to tennis with a sense of purpose
March 28, 1994

The hardest-working man in show business, that pampered iconoclast to whom all adjectives, good and bad, apply, is back. Elvis is in the building. James Brown is at the Apollo Theatre. Andre Agassi is on his way to center court. Two beefy security guards eye the throng surrounding a door. It opens. A girl screams. A walkie-talkie crackles and warns, "The bird is on the fly."

Here he comes, all fluttering tresses and dangling jewelry. Hair the color of cream soda, chocolate-pie eyes gazing out from under an upturned cap brim. A prancy walk, a jingle of an earring, a promise that he is here to stay. Then he is gone again, leaving only the exhaust from his private jet and this impression: For a sparrow of a guy, he sure is larger than life.

Was it real or was it just our imaginations when Agassi, recently back from five months away from the tour, materialized at the Upton Championships in Key Biscayne, Fla., looking fitter and more determined than ever? All he did was smoke through the draw before losing in the final to top-ranked Pete Sampras and vaporizing on his 10-seat JetStar. Who knows when we'll see him next or what he'll look like. Agassi is just hair and racket; you can pass your hand through the rest of him. Mr. Mirage is fat, he is thin, he is born again, he is Zen, he is dating his hometown sweetheart, he is seeing Barbra Streisand. As Jim Courier said of Agassi last week, with no small amount of amusement, "Which attitude is this? Is this the new attitude, or is this the new attitude?"

It's the new, new, new attitude. Agassi has a new body so sleek and shiny that it could have been bought in a boutique. His legs and chest show off bunches of freshly defined muscles. He has a new low-fat diet and a new training regimen, both of which he assures us are "permanent." He has a new love, Brooke Shields, who, he professes, has "changed my life."

He has a new won-loss record that seems to support that assertion. In the last month Agassi has won 11 of 13 matches and reached two finals. He won at Scottsdale in February, and at the Lipton he dispatched Boris Becker, 1993 U.S. Open finalist Cedric Pioline, Stefan Edberg and Patrick Rafter, the up-and-coming Australian, all in straight sets, before falling in three sets to Sampras.

Afterward Agassi stepped into a white Lincoln and drove to a small Miami airport, where he parked on the tarmac by his favorite toy, the elegant plane with the capital A and a burning tennis ball stenciled on the tail. But luxury no longer consoles Agassi, who at age 23 has experienced a hilariously profound revelation. "Without the cake, the icing sucks," he said, propping his bare feet up on the opposite seat.

Of all of Agassi's fade-ins and fade-outs, this one may be the most astonishing. He played only 13 tournaments in 1993. During his five-month absence he underwent surgery on his right wrist to repair chronic tendinitis. He got so fat that his thighs rubbed together. He got fired by his longtime coach, Nick Bollettieri, who defected to Becker. Agassi fell to No. 24 in the world, the first time since '87 he had finished a year out of the Top 10. "It was a nightmare year," he said.

Curiously, though, with each incarnation Agassi comes back a little smarter—and plays a little better. According to Agassi this last spiral was such a trial that it forced the most serious period of self-appraisal he has ever experienced. The result was a vow to become the one thing he had never been: an honest-to-goodness day-in, day-out professional who just might stick around and win more Grand Slam titles to go with his 1992 Wimbledon trophy. "Looking at my track record, I know it's hard to believe," said Agassi somewhere over Georgia en route to New York City. "For the first time I feel I have purpose. It's the worst thing to feel I could have done more, especially if it's a question of discipline"

There is perhaps no greater measure of Agassi's commitment than his new diet. No more Taco Bell and Junior Mints. No more Big Gulps, Quarter Pounders and McNuggets. It may sound like a small thing, but improving his diet is an unprecedented sacrifice for Agassi. When asked exactly what he has given up, Agassi replied, "Just my whole appetite."

His friends and advisers had pleaded with him for years to lay off the fast food. Agassi, however, seems to have a self-destructive need to resist good advice. "You could hold a hamburger right in front of his face and say, 'Andre, this is bad,' and he'd grab it out of your hand and eat it," says Ian Hamilton, a sports-marketing manager at Nike.

"My big splurge now is a chicken sandwich," said Agassi. A normal day's menu: bagels and coffee for breakfast, a turkey sandwich with mustard for lunch and pasta for dinner. Though he carefully watches his fat intake, he still has a sweet tooth. On the way to New York he popped fat-free cookies into the oven, and he keeps stacks of low-fat candy—Starburst, Skittles, Red Vines—in the plane's galley.

Agassi's fluctuating weight—he has been as high as 180 pounds and is now closer to 160—and his inconsistent practice and play were among the reasons that Bollettieri ended their 10-year partnership. Bollettieri had begun to lose patience when Agassi solicited help from other sources, such as John McEnroe, but the last straw was Agassi's arrival at Wimbledon as defending champion with his belly flopping over his belt and a brace on his wrist. Surprisingly Agassi made the quarterfinals, but days later Bollettieri severed their relationship. Agassi turned to Pancho Segura, but to no avail. He lost in the first round of the U.S. Open, won a Davis Cup match against the Bahamas in late September and then went home to Las Vegas and stayed there. In December he finally underwent the surgery.

"Nick hurt me," said Agassi. "When things like that happen, it can make you lose hope in people. It can suck the life right out of you." (For his side of the story, Bollettieri, who is writing his memoirs, says, "You'll have to wait for the book.")

Agassi briefly underwent counseling, during which he discovered that he was playing tennis to earn the approval of everybody but himself. He consulted self-help gurus Marianne Williamson and Anthony Robbins and the books of C.S. Lewis. "The longer I was away from the game, the more time I had to think about what I wanted," he said. "I had to ask myself if I wanted to play tennis, and I questioned if it was too late to turn things around."

The answer was that he did want to play, and that realization sent him into a frenzy of work. He started putting in 2½ hours a day at a gym. He lifted weights for about an hour and a half and then used a stair machine for 45 minutes. He began showing up at his office in Las Vegas three or four days a week to return phone calls.

"It wasn't like he put on a suit or anything," said his brother, Phil, who also was aboard the plane. But Andre was getting his life organized. "I think he's finally getting direction," said Phil.

Late last summer, said Agassi, he fell in love with Shields, the model-actress and Princeton graduate, whom he met through a mutual friend in Los Angeles. "She's turned me around," said Agassi. "She's made me feel things I've never felt before and think of things I never thought of." Shields was not at Lipton, but Agassi said she'll accompany him to some tournaments later this year.

One essential that Agassi is still missing is a full-time coach. He recently has been working with veteran player Brad Gilbert, an artful tactician. They have a trial agreement, which worked well at Lipton, although Agassi may find it difficult to work with anyone full-time. "I just can't be told what to do," he said.

Agassi probably will never be a grinder like Courier, and that's not necessarily bad. "Andre's a guy who's never really given everything he's got to the game," Courier says. "He'll give most of what he's got, for a while. Then he'll stop. Then he'll get fat, and something will happen, and he'll come back again. That's just him. He's unique."

The only thing consistent about Agassi is his star quality. Despite his No. 31 ranking he simply swamped the rest of the 96-man field at Lipton. The fans gathered daily at the exit ramp of the tournament's impressive new stadium, straining for a glimpse of him. People peered through chain-link fences and leaned over railings. Reporters watched the spectators who watched for Agassi.

He brought the crowd to its feet when he defeated Becker 6-2, 7-5 in the third round. In the middle of the match Agassi charmed everyone. Becker, disgusted with his play and trailing 6-2, 2-0, handed his racket to ball girl Stephanie Flaherty, a high school senior from Miami. Agassi waved her onto the court and played a point with her.

After he had dismissed Pioline 6-4, 6-2 in the fourth round, Agassi moved on to Edberg, the third-ranked man in the world, and defeated him 7-6, 6-2. Afterward the crowd again gathered at the ramp for the pleasure of basking in Agassi's dazzling presence. Just a few feet away Edberg, the father of an eight-month-old daughter, folded a baby stroller into his car and drove away unnoticed. Brad Stine, Courier's coach, lounged in a hallway inside the stadium and took in the guards and walkie-talkies. "It's rock-and-roll tennis," said Stine.

Sampras just smiled at it all in his ever-pleasant way. "It's good, it's all good," he said. "I want Andre back in the Top 5. You might not agree with some of what he does, but the game needs him."

Indeed it does. On Sunday morning Sampras awoke feeling nauseated, and he played the final only because Agassi—the new Agassi—made one of the classiest gestures of his career. Sampras was not well enough to take the court for the match's 1 p.m. starting time, so Agassi, rather than accept a victory by default, agreed to push back the starting time of the match an hour while Sampras was treated by a physician. "I'll never forget it," said Sampras of this concession. His gratitude did hot, however, prevent him from steamrolling over Agassi in the last two sets for a 5-7, 6-3, 6-3 victory and running his 1994 match record to 23-2.

Agassi had no regrets. This was just the beginning of his comeback, and it was an auspicious beginning, too. His performance in Key Biscayne moved him back into the Top 20. As his jet continued on the way to New York, where he would meet Shields, Agassi changed into a pair of clean warm-ups, unwrapped a turkey sandwich and dished himself up a plate of pasta primavera. He poured two packets of sugar into his coffee and reclined in an overstuffed swivel chair. "I don't really stress too many things in my life," he said.

What stresses him?

"Airports."

PHOTOBILL FRAKESThe new Agassi is taut-tummied and determined to be something different: a day-in and day-out pro. PHOTOBILL FRAKESAgassi gave the ailing Sampras a hand in the Upton final by delaying the starting time of the match. PHOTOBILL FRAKESAgassi finds the skies friendlier in his private jet, which he boarded immediately after Sunday's final. TWO PHOTOSALBERT FERREIRA/DMIAgassi says the score is love and love with Shields, whom he helped nurse back from foot surgery.

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)