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Antidote to Tennis's Woes: Andre Agassi
By Jennifer Frey
WIMBLEDON, England Andre Agassi reportedly is still in London, more than a week after he made a last-minute withdrawal from Wimbledon, disappointing legions of fans in the process. Word has it that his wife—actress Brooke Shields—is here on location, and he stayed to keep her company.
If that's the case—and no one is saying, for sure—then Agassi has kept a low profile. Then again, Agassi has become adept at keeping himself scarce since his top-secret wedding to Shields in April. In the aftermath of that event, little has been seen or heard from Agassi, who was once the tour's greatest showman, a player that drew fans for his substance and his style. Yes, he played great tennis. But he also provided great theater.
On a week when Wimbledon was plagued by both rain and disappointing performances by several of its American stars—No. 1 Pete Sampras being the notable exception—Agassi's absence was only more noticeable. There is no better way to describe it than to listen to Sampras, the sport's greatest player, who unabashedly appealed for Agassi's return.
"The game definitely needs him," Sampras said at the start of Wimbledon. "He is missed by the whole of tennis. I don't really know what is going on with him."
Sampras is not alone in his confusion. Everyone wants to know what's going on with Agassi. Has he lost his drive at the age of 27? Is he ever going to mount a serious comeback? And, most important, can he return to being the player that he once was?
The official reason for Agassi's withdrawal from Wimbledon is a sore wrist, which has kept him out of tournaments since early April. His next scheduled appearance is in Washington at the Legg Mason Classic in mid-July. His people say he expects to be there. Tennis—especially American men's tennis—should certainly hope that is the case.
The last time Agassi played the Legg Mason, two summers ago, marked the middle of the greatest run of his career. He was amazing to watch that year—so dedicated, so hard-working, so focused, so on top of his game. It was as if Agassi had been transformed, as if he had awakened one morning and realized that he was sitting on this tremendous potential, then set out to do everything he could to make the most of it.
Big-name players have made a habit of visiting the Legg Mason for perhaps a day or so, losing (without much effort) in the early rounds and departing the vicious Washington heat before they had to work up too much of a sweat. Agassi was having none of that in July 1995, the summer he was No. 1 in the world, the summer he wanted to win anything—everything—so badly that he threw up in the flower pots in the corner of the FitzGerald Tennis Center in the final against Stefan Edberg, yet refused to quit.
"He had such an incredible summer—won four tournaments, had a 26-match winning streak, put everything into his tennis," Tom Gullikson, the U.S. Davis Cup captain, said of Agassi's play in 1995. "He was so motivated, practicing so many hours a day, working so very hard, and that was something new for him, really. He hadn't been able to sustain that type of commitment before, but then he was, and he was so eager, and you could just see he was loving what he was doing."
Then came the U.S. Open. For both men's and women's tennis, the 1995 U.S. Open was a watershed moment, an event when the game seemed to be at its pinnacle. For the women, Monica Seles met her greatest rival, Steffi Graf, in a final that marked their first meeting since a Graf fan stabbed Seles, sending her out of the game for more than two years.
And on the men's side, tennis had its first great rivalry in what seemed like ages, Sampras vs. Agassi, the two so different in looks, style and attitude that they had inspired their own rivalry-based commercials. Sampras still remembers that final vividly, the fierceness of the battle, the tension on the court, and the way the crowd was so excited—almost electric—when they walked on the court.
"I kind of felt like a heavyweight fighter," Sampras said. "And I really haven't felt that too much in my career."
Sampras won in a knock-down, drag-out four-set battle that included one of the longest, most fascinating points in U.S. Open history. He went on regain the No. 1 ranking while Agassi seemed to deflate, his play yet to return to the level that it was that marvelous summer.
"That loss to Pete in the final was really pretty devastating," Gullikson said, "and I don't think Andre's been the same since. To him, he'd never put that kind of application into something and not succeeded. It was the first time he went really all out and didn't win. Sampras got the big prize, and I think that was really hard on Andre."
Agassi had a few shining moments in 1996—he won the Lipton in Key Biscayne, Fla., and also won the Olympic gold medal (albeit with many of the top players, Sampras among them, not entered in the competition). He made it to the semifinals of the first event he played in 1997, in San Jose, but has had a disastrous (and injury-fraught) year since.
A few months ago, shortly before the wrist injury, and before the wedding, Gullikson coached Agassi in the quarterfinal round of the Davis Cup, and Agassi helped the United States beat the Netherlands with victories in both his singles' matches. Agassi talked to Gullikson about his plans then, and what he said, according to Gullikson, is that he really wants to get back to the top.
"My sense is he really, really wants to make a good run at it," Gullikson said.
Gullikson certainly hopes so. So does Sampras, who wants Agassi back because "Andre makes me a better player." And so, too, should we all.