Birthday huzzahs to Andre Agassi, who turns 40 on Thursday, April 29, 2010.
Here’s my summary of his life and career in this excerpt from my book “THE BUD COLLINS HISTORY OF TENNIS” ($35.95, New Chapter Press, www.NewChapterMedia.com)
A player of irresistible flair, appeal and shot-making ability since appearing on the professional landscape as a 16-year-old in 1986, Andre Kirk Agassi, was the first Nevadan to make an impact on the game. And what a tremendous impact, although it took longer than expected for him to make the predicted leap to his first major championship, Wimbledon in 1992—and even longer to re-dedicate himself to his profession so that he was solidly established at the heights. At age 33, he was playing better than ever, winning his fourth Australian championship, his eighth major.
Despite a seemingly disastrous slump during which he plummeted to No. 141 in 1997, and finished the year at No. 122, Andre rebounded sensationally to rise to No. 6 in 1998—a record turnaround. He nailed down five of his majors between 1999-2003. The piece de resistance was his French triumph in 1999, evicting the defender Carlos Moya in the fourth round, 4-6, 7-5, 7-5, 6-1, and finishing in a dazzling recovery over Andrei Medvedev, 1-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 The win catapulted Agassi into the select company of Fred Perry, Don Budge, Rod Laver and Roy Emerson as only the fifth man to own all four majors.
Andre’s first major title, Wimbledon, came after he’d failed as the favorite to beat Pete Sampras for the U.S. Open title in 1990, and Andres Gomez and Jim Courier for the French in 1990 and 1991. After a quick, unhappy thrashing by Henri Leconte, 6-2, 6-1, 6-2, at Wimbledon in 1987, Agassi assiduously avoided the grass until 1991, a successful reappearance ending in a quarterfinal loss to David Wheaton, 6-2, 0-6, 3-6, 7-6 (7-3), 6-2. Realizing the greensward wasn’t that forbidding, he returned a year later to take it all, his No. 12 seeding making him among Wimbledon’s lowest regarded champions at the starting gate. “This was not the one people looked for me to win,” he said correctly, after his buzzing groundies outdid the missile attack of 36-ace-serving Goran Ivanisevic in the final, 6-7 (8-10), 6-4,6-4, 1-6, 6-4. Ranked low again in 1994, No. 20, he became only the third non-seed to win the U.S. Championships, taking it on his ninth shot, over German Michael Stich, 6-1, 7-6 (7-3), 7-5 joining Aussies Mal Anderson (1957) and Fred Stolle (1966) in the exclusive unseeded club.
He had also made excuses for skipping the long trip to Australia, yet won it on his first try in 1995, spectacularly over Sampras, the defender, 4-6, 6-1, 7-6 (8-6), 6-4. Following his French title in 1999, Andre won his second U.S.—fifth major—in a five-set battle with Todd Martin, 6-4 6-7 (5-7), 6-7 (2-7), 6-3. 6-2. He then won the 2000 Aussie over Yevgeny Kafelnikov, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4, after being two points from defeat in a fourth-set, semifinal tie-breaker against Sampras, 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (0-7), 7-6 (7-5), 6-1. His third and fourth Aussie titles were both in straight-set finals, over Frenchman Arnaud Clement, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2, in 2001 and German Rainer Schuettler, 6-2, 6-2, 6-1, in 2003. (He missed 2002 with a wrist injury.)
A brilliant shot-maker and thoughtful attacker from the baseline who took the ball so early that he seemed to be playing ping-pong, Agassi needed time to sort out whether being a commercial success was enough. As the most widely marketed player of all-time—“Image is Everything” was one of his sales pitches—he has made more millions off the court than on it. Fortunately, he decided to utilize his gifts to attract as much attention by winning. Never has there been such a controversial figure so broadly associated with the game, thanks to TV commercials, his ever-changing hairstyle, brightly hued attire. Such items as black shoes and denim shorts, considered garish by traditionalists, lured countless buyers as hip or avant-garde.
His engagement to actress Brooke Shields (granddaughter of Hall of Famer Frank Shields), whom he married in 1997, didn’t hurt. Andre’s visibility transcended the sports page. That marriage was short-lived, but he made another high-profile pairing when he wed champion Steffi Graf in 2001 (they have two children, Jaden Gil and Jaz).
But beneath the peacock and the pop idol was a tennis player whose timing, anticipation, coordination and determination enabled him to deliver withering, top-spinning barrages with flicks of the wrist. “When Andre’s on, forget it,” said Sampras. “He does practically everything better than anybody else.”
Agassi, born April 29, 1970 in Las Vegas and grew up there, although he was farmed out to Nick Bollettieri’s Tennis Academy at Brandenton, Fla., at age 13. His father, Mike Agassi, an Iranian immigrant and naturalized U.S. citizen, was a strict taskmaster determined that Andre would be a top tennis player. Papa pushed the kid from cradle onward, then gave the prodigy over to surrogate father Bollettieri. An Olympic boxer for Iran in 1952, Mike fell for tennis and taught Andre the new game, “based on the way a fighter throws punches, plus a two-handed backhand for added power.” A right-hander, 5-11, Andre played at, 170 pounds.
Andre had his own Olympics in 1996 in Atlanta, where he made off with the gold medal by thumping Spaniard Sergi Bruguera, 6-2, 6-3, 6-1. He and wife Steffi Graf are the only players in tennis history to have all four major championship titles—and a gold medal—in their trophy cases. By lifting the Australian crown from Sampras in 1995, Agassi also took Pete’s No. 1 jersey, and they dueled throughout the year for the top. But Pete ended Andre’s excellent summer streak of four tournaments and 26 matches with a 6-4, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5, title-round defeat to regain his U.S. Open title and the top ranking.
That loss seemed to deflate Agassi, and 1996—other than the Olympics—was a downer: Ghastly first and second-round losses respectively at Wimbledon (No. 186 Doug Flach) and the French (No. 73 Chris Woodruff), and desultory semifinal losses to Michael Chang at the Australian and the U.S. Opens. His was an uneven course through the first 11 years, up one year, down another (four first-round losses at the U.S. Open for instance), but the sheer firepower within made him a threat to blast anybody off any court at any time.
A world Top 10 inhabitant 16 times between 1988 and 2005, Agassi finished 1999 as No. 1, and was No. 2 in 1994-95, 2002. Bollettieri, feeling Andre didn’t work hard enough, severed their decade-long relationship in 1993, but he won six majors with Brad Gilbert as coach. Plunging to No. 24, his lowest adult ranking at the time, after losing the first round of the 1993 U.S. Open to No. 61 Thomas Enqvist, he required surgery to repair a damaged wrist—“I thought my career was over.” But he came back strong. Aussie Darren Cahill became his coach in 2002, and fitness guru, fellow Las Vegan Gil Reyes, directed Andre’s superb physical conditioning.
In 1988, as one of the youngest U.S. Davis Cup rookies at 18, he won all his singles on Latin clay (historic trouble ground for gringos) at Peru and Argentina to spearhead his fallen nation’s recovery from the perdition of relegation. He became a valuable hand in the Cup triumphs of 1990, 1992 and 1995, but played sporadically thereafter, a total of 22 ties. Registering four singles wins in 3-2 decisions over Zimbabwe and the Czech Republic in 2000, he sat out Davis Cup play until making a cameo in 2005 against Croatia, losing what became his Cup swan-song to Ivan Ljubicic 6-3, 7-6 (0), 6-3 in the surprising 3-2 U.S. loss. He finished with a 30-6 singles record, representing the U.S. in 1988-1993, 1995, 1997- 1998, 2000, 2005.
Andre made his first splash at Stratton Mountain, Vt. in 1986 as a 16-year-old, beating Tim Mayotte en route to the quarterfinals. He won his first title at the end of 1987 in Itaparica (Brazil), over Brazil’s Luiz Mattar 7-6, 6-2. The last title (the 60th) was Los Angeles in 2005, 6-4, 7-5, over Gilles Muller of Luxembourg. His most productive season was 1995: seven titles on a 73-9 match record, but two of his five titles in 1999 were the French and U.S. His feat of playing U.S. Open finals 15 years apart (1990 and 2005) is unequalled. Andre’s last genuine hurrah was fending off close defeats.
In 2005, he was two sets down and two points from defeat in defeating James Blake in an epic Open quarterfinal 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6(8-6), en route to climbing to the ultimate of his 15th major final, a very combative four-set loss to Roger Federer, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6(7-1), 6-1.
Establishing the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation, he has shown responsibility and concern, donating millions to such worthy projects as building the Agassi College Preparatory Academy, and the Agassi Boys and Girls Club in the troubled sector of West Las Vegas. Call him a humanitarian champion.
Won eight major singles titles: Australian, 1995, defeating Sampras, 4-6, 6-1, 7-6 (8-6), 6-4; 2000, defeating Yevgeny Kafelnikov, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4; 2001, defeating Arnaud Clement, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2; 2003, defeating Rainer Schuettler, 6-2, 6-2, 6-1; French, 1999, defeating Andrei Medvedev, 1-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4; Wimbledon, 1992, defeating Goran Ivanisevic, 6-7 (8-10, 6-4, 6-4, 1-6, 6-4; U.S., 1994, defeating Michael Stich, 6-1, 7-6 (7-5), 7-5; U.S., 1999, defeating Todd Martin, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-7 (2-7), 6-3, 6-2.
He lost seven major singles finals: French, 1990, to Andres Gomez, 6-3, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4; 1991, to Jim Courier, 3-6, 6-4, 2-6, 6-1, 6-4; Wimbledon, 1999, to Sampras, 6-3, 6-4, 7-5; U.S., 1990, to Sampras,6-4, 6-3, 6-2; U.S., 1995, to Sampras, 6-4, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5; U.S., 2002, to Sampras, 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 6-5; U.S., 2005, to Roger Federer, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (7-1) 6-1.
During a 21-year pro career, ending emotionally at the U.S. Open of 2006, he won 60 singles titles (of 90 finals), one doubles title and $31,152,975 prize money. His career singles won-loss record was 870-274.