Not yet. The security guard stops them all; Andre Agassi in front, Michael Stich behind and breathing down his neck, the horseshoe of beefy bodyguards surrounding them both. The guard, listening to his walkie-talkie crackle above the murmur that is quickening to a roar, waits for permission to bring the U.S. Open final to Louis Armstrong Stadium.
The lobby of the players' lounge fills with the name: "Andre!"..."Come on, Agassi!"..."Pump it up, Andre!" Agassi doesn't hear. Outside the door, hundreds of faces shift; they see him through the glass. It is 4 p.m. on this September Sunday, a hint of fall in the air. Agassi doesn't feel it. His face is blank, eyes staring deep into nothing. His body is shaking.
He is hopping from foot to foot, yes, but there is more than that. Agassi's shoulders, arms, head—all of him—are quivering. "There's no way this guy's coming here and taking my title," he says to his coach, tour veteran Brad Gilbert. He can't wait to move. Stich tries not to notice. "O.K., let's go," says the guard, and they surge into the waiting crowd, cameras clicking and popping above Agassi's head. The fans fall in and follow Agassi the hundred yards into the stadium.
"He is ridiculously large," Todd Martin had said after Agassi dispatched him in the semifinals the day before, but Martin was talking only of Agassi's fame, of this kind of mob scene and Barbra and Brooke and the hair that makes young girls titter. Martin wasn't speaking of tennis or of the massive talent Agassi came perilously close to wasting or of the fact that on Sunday, Agassi would arrive at a place few believed he was capable of reaching. Yes, Agassi, who was unseeded, defeated five seeded players en route to winning the U.S. Open, picked Stich apart in the final, 6-1, 7-6, 7-5, and then fell to his knees in the tournament's most indelible moment. But Agassi is suddenly the biggest thing in tennis because he proved himself serious at last, and an Agassi with purpose is simply gigantic.
September 18, 1994
"I feel I should have four or five Grand Slam titles now, no question about that," Agassi said the day before the event at Flushing Meadow began. "It will be disappointing if I can't accomplish the things I'm capable of, but more than that, I'll regret it if I don't give myself the chance. And the way to do that is by working my ass off. I'm disappointed I didn't win this tournament in '88, '89, '90, disappointed I didn't win the French Open in '90, '91, disappointed I haven't made it down to Australia yet—but those are things I'm going to start doing now."
So he did. But besides Agassi, who would have predicted this? Coming into the U.S. Open, top dog Pete Sampras was nursing an injury, Jim Courier was mulling withdrawal, and the 20th-ranked Agassi—absent from the final of a Grand Slam event since he won Wimbledon in 1992—was making news only by complaining about an attempt to juice the game with rock-and-roll during a tune-up tournament in New Haven, Conn. Yet by Sunday evening, tennis had gotten its biggest push since Hurricane Connors blew through Queens in 1991, and it should have come as little surprise. Nothing shakes up country clubbers more than the yearly fortnight in New York.
Why? The players hate Flushing Meadow. Noisy, dirty and rude, it's about as suitable for tennis as Times Square. "It's like a nightmare," says Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the promising young Russian, and he's correct. That's why it's wonderful. Only the U.S. Open has the clout to yank the world's most coddled jocks out of their cocoons, slap them around and make them like it—or else. Sampras? The No. 1 player complained about "humps and bumps" on the Stadium Court, and two days later he got bumped all the way back to Florida. Boris Becker whined that the courts were too slow, and he never made it out of the first round. As for the eighth-seeded Andrei Medvedev, who crusaded last year against "poisoned" food, he never had a chance. After promising to detail more complaints once he finished playing, Medvedev was flung out in the second round. He skulked off without another word.
Such is the black magic of the place. Still, even connoisseurs of trash-town tennis were stunned by the savagery with which the men's draw was torn apart. For the first time since the tournament began seeding players, in 1927, the top three men were bounced before the quarterfinals—and a year that had seemed headed toward a coronation ended in anarchy. Sampras, winner of the Australian Open in January, had seemed on an unstoppable glide after easing to a second straight Wimbledon title in July, with the rest of the field following docilely behind. At the U.S. Open, however, an exhausted Sampras suffered an excruciating defeat that supplied the coup de grace to what had begun as a Grand Slam campaign. "It's been a lost summer for him," says Sampras's coach, Tim Gullikson.
After losing six weeks in July and August to tendinitis in his left ankle, Sampras came to Flushing Meadow sorely lacking in tennis conditioning. Talent carried him through three rounds, and until Peruvian baseliner Jaime Yzaga chugged into view, it seemed that Sampras might roll to his sixth Grand Slam title. Then something better happened. Sampras lost. More, Sampras lost well.
For those who complain that he is passionless, that he lacks personality, Sampras proved it all a lie. His feet cut raw by the hard court, spasms shooting up his back, Sampras found himself tiring against Yzaga. By the fifth set he was doubled over after each point, using his racket the way an old man uses a cane. Later he called it "the worst I have ever felt on a tennis court." Down 5-3, with Yzaga serving for the match, Sampras battled his own body to break serve and then held serve to square the set at 5-5. "I wasn't going to give up," said Sampras after succumbing 7-5.
The match, like most of this Open, was middling tennis but superb drama, and precisely what the sport needed. Years of bloodless excellence from the likes of Courier and Sampras and Stefan Edberg had helped cause declining interest among fans, criticism from the press and defensiveness in the tennis establishment, and that is a fatal combination. Agassi's rise and Sampras's fall—with the rivalry that could ensue—made the men interesting again. Then, at the last minute, the women got the idea too.
For just when it appeared that nothing, not even an ailing back, could keep Steffi Graf from her 16th Grand Slam singles title, here came the inexhaustible Arantxa Sànchez Vicario, bounding out of a huge first-set hole and pumping life into the women's game by outhitting and out-toughing her rival in the finest U.S. Open women's title match in a decade. A finalist at this year's Australian Open and winner of the French Open, the second-ranked Sànchez Vicario collected her second Grand Slam title of '94 and assaulted Graf's once impregnable spot at the top of the women's game. "Winning a Grand Slam final is a great feeling, but it's even better to beat the Number 1 player in the world," said Sànchez Vicario after her 1-6, 7-6, 6-4 victory. "Nobody can take away what I did."
True enough, especially when you consider what has been happening all around her. Graf's travails—she has suddenly lost at three straight Grand Slam events—are symptomatic of a tour struggling to find itself after losing Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati. Only Sànchez Vicario seems intent on paying the price to be great. Following two consecutive losses to Graf earlier this year, Sànchez Vicario decided to beef up her game and mind. So she hired sports psychologist Jim Loehr, who had worked with Gabriela Sabatini before her 1990 U.S. Open win, and trainer Pat Etcheberry, who works with Sampras. "They know what it takes to be a champion," Sànchez Vicario said. Twice a winner on the clay courts of Roland Garros, Sànchez Vicario knew she had to win a different major to break through.
"To be the best player in the world, to be Number 1, I knew I had to develop my game," she said. "I never felt, 'I've had enough; I want to stay the way I am because I'm winning anyway.' I always like to take risks to get better."
Obviously. Though Graf's back trouble clearly hindered her midway through the second set of Saturday's women's final, Sànchez Vicario earned the crown. She chipped and charged back into the match, volleying with authority. Happy? "I'm still in the air," she said. But guess where she wants to touch down? "Now that I win on hard courts," Sànchez Vicario says, "I know I can win on grass."
Such is the power of taking New York—if you can make it there...well, you know the rest. The first words Gilbert said when Agassi came off the court on Sunday were, "You're going to win the Australian Open." Who's going to argue? It is Gilbert, after all, whom Agassi credits with reviving his career, with giving him the ability to think through points for the first time. "He has spent his whole career winning matches he shouldn't have won," Agassi says of his new coach. "I've done the opposite: I've lost a lot of matches I shouldn't have lost."
That was always the most frustrating thing about Agassi. No one on the tour, not even Sampras, possesses more natural ability. Agassi's ground strokes are so quick and compact that he handles even the most difficult returns like a bandleader flicking his baton. That he was accused of tanking a Davis Cup match or buckled under pressure in two French Open finals or skipped Wimbledon was not the point; Agassi was wasting his talent. By last February even he knew it. He told Perry Rogers, his manager and childhood friend, "Time's going by, and I'm not even on the path of figuring out what I need to do."
The first step was to change coaches. Agassi had worked with Nick Bollettieri, Pancho Segura and Fritz Nau, but he had always been bothered by the fact that none of them had faced Sampras's serve or Courier's tenacity. Gilbert, though, had beaten Agassi in four of their eight meetings. Agassi asked him to dinner in Miami on the eve of the Lipton Championships in March, and Gilbert detailed Agassi's weaknesses: throwing away points, belting the ball without thought, playing a one-dimensional baseline game. Agassi knew after one conversation that he had found his man. Gilbert taught him that talent was only half the puzzle. Agassi had never realized that.
"I've always had a gift," Agassi says, "and my talent has gotten me through a lot of tough things. But I've never actually understood my responsibility to that talent, which is to go out there and be so focused on what I need to do, dedicate myself and understand what I need to do to make my talent come through."
Agassi's run at Flushing Meadow was astounding in its variety. He ran through all-court powers like Martin, Wayne Ferreira and Guy Forget, beat one of the best serve-and-volleyers in Stich, shook off the tough-minded baseliner Thomas Muster and, in his most impressive win, showed himself to be fitter and scrappier in the fifth set than the master of the marathon himself, Michael Chang. In the final Agassi mixed his serves to perfection, charged and volleyed with authority and deftly lobbed over the 6'4" Stich. "You know what's been the greatest?" Gilbert says. "To see him evolve over the last six months into being a great player, instead of just being a great hitter of the ball."
Yes, Agassi had won Wimbledon, but this felt different. Like many of his critics, Agassi suspected he had fallen into two wondrous weeks in England in '92, had gotten by on mindless, perfect strokes. "When I won Wimbledon, it was a relief," Agassi says. "Winning this one, I feel I've made a surge forward. There's a difference between saying, 'Wheeeww, I did it,' and saying, 'Yes. I can do it.' "
Strangely enough, despite the black socks, Minnie Mouse shoes and one lapse when he babbled with John McEnroe through the on-court camera, Agassi never allowed himself to be distracted by the sidelines of his career. During a tournament in which the doubles team of Luke and Murphy Jensen—cartoon characters who do everything to attract attention except win matches—took Agassi's rock-and-roll image to absurd extremes, Agassi was all game. "Murphy and Luke have a gig," he says. "That's never been something I've tried to create. It's always just been a part of who I am. You can bring your act, but the substance has to be what we came here for: the tennis."
This is what he carries now, at a few minutes past 4 p.m. on a September Sunday: the substance. At 24, Agassi has finally come to understand what he is supposed to do. "I can be the best player in the world," he says.
Now they are moving him along. He hustles down the stairs and into the mouth of the tunnel, Stich trailing and the bodyguards all around. He can hear the thousands outside, can see the green of the court getting bigger. His face is a blank. He isn't quivering now. "When you step onto a court," Agassi says, "it's like another person takes over. It's almost like going into a time warp, through something. The nerves are so intense and then you step out...and all of a sudden there's a sense of peace. It's incredible."
A champion arrives.