Another Andre Agassi waterspout has been sighted, threatening to soak us in more self-indulgence. This one involves Andre's strategy to excuse himself from the Grand Slam Cup now taking place in Munich, a 16-man invitational event that pays $2 million to the winner -- evidently an insignificant pile of cash to Agassi in these days of mega-money sneaker and camera endorsements.
It seems that nearly two weeks ago, after the Davis Cup celebration dinner, Andre and his big brother Phil were hunkered down in the nonsmoking section of the International House of Pancakes in St. Petersburg, Fla. Just by chance, the man seated in an adjoining booth was Barry Lorge, the veteran tennis writer and columnist of the San Diego Union, whose scrupulous prose graced these pages for many years. Lorge heard Phil say to Andre that within the next three days they ought to find a doctor who'd certify Andre was too hurt to play the Grand Slam Cup, and they ought to show up in Munich saying they'd love to play, but they just can't; a public relations ploy, Phil explained, "so the press won't kill us."
Lorge had just finished writing a column about Davis Cup, where he had seen Andre walk off the court, claiming he had a torn stomach muscle after splitting sets with Australia's Darren Cahill in what was essentially an exhibition. (The Davis Cup officially was decided the previous day, when the United States team won the best-three-of-five series, 3-0.) Agassi apparently had torn this muscle at 2-1 in the second. Miraculously, he was not only able to finish the set, but to win it, hitting forehands at his customary warp speed.
Although Agassi was diagnosed at a St. Petersburg hospital as having torn a muscle under his sternum, not everyone believed he was hurt -- Cahill for one. Pointedly, he said of Agassi: "He didn't look hurt to me." After Agassi abandoned the match, Cahill sneered: "If he's not hurt, it's a disgrace." Agassi already had angered the Aussies with his remarks two days before. After barely beating lightly regarded Richard Fromberg, Agassi announced he had the flu and congratulated himself for winning the match on "sheer guts."
Agassi's penchant for excuses and self-aggrandizement have made him unpopular with players and reporters. Indeed, when he claimed on Friday that he had the flu there was a general murmuring that he was trying to duck out of his Sunday match -- and greasing the skids to bail on the Grand Slam Cup, which he was playing under duress, anyway. He'd repeatedly badmouthed the event and tried to renege on his commitment (some think because Agassi's management group, IMG, is tied to the ATP tour, and a rival of the International Tennis Federation, which is tied to the Grand Slam Cup). The reason Agassi hadn't withdrawn was for fear the ITF would retaliate by suspending him from the French Open, where he's had his most success. But a legitimate injury, ahh, that could get him out of the Grand Slam Cup, and still keep him in his beloved French. Wouldn't that be serendipitous?
All this brings us back to the table in the St. Pete IHOP, a public place, where Phil and Andre were talking, and Barry Lorge -- as meticulous and honest a reporter as there is in our business -- was listening. So Lorge went to a pay telephone and called San Diego with a small insert to his column, recapitulating their conversation.
Now, you might argue that Lorge could have gone over to Agassi, identified himself as a reporter, and said something like: "I overheard your conversation. I think it's extremely newsworthy. I intend to print it. I'd like to hear anything more you have to say about it." Not because you need to do that ethically -- it's a public setting, no privacy is invaded; the information is direct, not hearsay, and it is newsworthy -- but because it might improve the story, especially to hear them go hummina-hummina. In retrospect, Lorge thinks maybe he should have done that. He didn't, because in his past experiences Andre and Phil always "clammed up" around him and other reporters. But the information is in no way tainted. The Agassis were discussing how best to excuse themselves from an event they didn't want to play in in the first place.
Bill Shelton, Agassi's agent, said that he spoke to Phil about the alleged conversation, and confirmed: "Phil did speak about going to a doctor as soon as possible, and what they should do if Andre couldn't play because he was hurt." Shelton said: "Normally, if you're physically able, the tournament asks you to show up and make a p.r. effort. Phil and Andre did discuss how they might go there and take care of this problem." Shelton is upset with the spin taken on this incident. "It makes Andre out to be a liar," Shelton says. Shelton says Andre was legitimately hurt, and he was simply trying to do right by the Grand Slam Cup.
Maybe he was. But why the rush to get to another doctor within three days if not to take advantage of the freshness of the injury? Why not wait and see if it would heal? Why the overriding concern with the p.r. fallout, if not to defuse a developing boy-who-cried-wolf pattern? And why is everything around Andre coated in mystery and bunkerism that even Shelton concedes leads to "needless negative force" between Andre and the media?
Here you have a person who has courted the enmity of his fellow players for a style of behavior they find self-serving in the extreme. Here you have a self-confessed slave to image, who, by definition, would put his faith in strategy. Here you have a major talent, who has repeatedly thumbed his nose at Wimbledon, the cathedral of his sport, and sought to stand above and apart from his peers. Here you have, in 20-year-old Andre Agassi, a person who at this stage of his brief, tempestuous career does not get the benefit of a doubt. Given that subtext, it's hardly a leap to suspect Agassi of either exaggerating an injury to suit his purposes or, worse, phonying it. And that is a crime far worse than just wearing bad clothes.