At a time when some of his peers are beginning to call it quits, all the evidence says Andre Agassi cares more than ever. Twenty-nine years old might not be the end of the tennis line, but he can see it from here. The opponents are younger and stronger. His workouts are more exacting and his diet stricter, because they have to be. He's earned $16 million on the court, so it's not money driving him anymore. He's won all four Grand Slam titles -- the only man of his generation to do so -- so it's not titles, per se. No, the renaissance of Andre Agassi is one of the best stories in sports today because his sole purpose is winning.
"It's good to win," he said yesterday, with the appreciation and wonderment of a man who does it rarely. "It's good to win."
He's done that a lot lately, 28 times in his last 32 matches, to be exact. As a young man, Agassi was brilliant at times, a downright underachieving disappointment at others. His "Image Is Everything" commercials made him millions but also seemed to capture everything that was wrong with him. Now, at 29, it's like he's Vince Lombardi. More sit-ups, more practice time, improved serve, better concentration, greater determination. "There's no question he got his motivation back again," his Legg Mason victim, Yevgeny Kafelnikov said. "He's on the top of his game at the moment."
Actually, I'd disagree with part of Kafelnikov's assessment. Agassi, for many reasons including some of which only he knows, appears to have more motivation than ever. Maybe it's knowing he only has two or three years left where he can physically compete with the young bashers coming up. Maybe he got sick of Pete Sampras grabbing all the glory. Maybe, given his intelligence and introspection, he simply said to himself, "I should be better than this."
Whatever, ever since hitting rock bottom -- No. 141 in the rankings in February 1997 -- Agassi has dedicated himself to being the best tennis player he can be. That rededication landed him briefly at No. 1 again (after losing the Wimbledon final to Sampras) and may push him to a longer stay at No. 1 before the end of this season. "It's nice to know," he said, "that your best can win the big ones."
His best was on display yesterday in the Legg Mason final, and it was enough to obliterate Kafelnikov, who came into the match ranked No. 2 in the world behind Sampras and ahead of Agassi and Pat Rafter. The first set was a thriller, decided in a tiebreaker that swung on Kafelnikov's careless error. But the second set was a virtual whitewash. The score suggests Kafelnikov wasn't into the match, or went into the tank after falling behind. Not so. Agassi smoked him. He hit the ball with as much pace and depth as he did a dozen years ago.
Motivation? Kafelnikov dusted Agassi in straight sets two weeks ago in Canada. A young Agassi might have pouted about being routed in 63 minutes. Today's Agassi came out swinging in retaliation. "His ego was strong today," Kafelnikov said. "He did want to take revenge for the defeat in Montreal."
Let's not be naive about this; Agassi is hugely important to the overall health of men's tennis. Granted, Sampras is the best player. But Agassi is the game's brightest star, actually it's only true star. He was a star from the first time we saw him, what with the pony-tail, the 100-mph ground strokes, the brashness, the commercial endorsements, the fact that he came from Las Vegas, that he married Brooke Shields. If you put Kafelnikov in his tennis whites on the corner of Connecticut and L, there aren't 50 Washingtonians who would have any idea who he is, even though he has been ranked No. 1, and even though he's played more matches on the tour than any player four of the last five years.
But we all know Agassi. We've peeked in on his personal mini-dramas for more than a dozen years now. If he'd lost earlier this past week, there would have been despair on 16th Street at the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center. With Agassi in the final, the tournament was a raging success. Individual sports, in this day and age, are dependent on stars. Look at golf. Mark O'Meara could win from now until doomsday, but he couldn't in his wildest dreams attract the attention (whether on TV, at the gate or from corporate sponsors) that Tiger Woods or Sergio Garcia command. Tennis is no different. A big part of the reason men's tennis has dropped precipitously in popularity is that nobody stepped in to replace John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. With big apologies to Sampras, Agassi is the only guy out there who qualifies as a star.
That he used the Washington stop on the tour to launch himself into the U.S. Open later this month is good for the local organizers and even better for the U.S. Open.
The women are still infinitely more fun to watch, in my opinion. But at least the men have Sampras, Agassi, Kafelnikov and Rafter in top form. Agassi, while he's playing perhaps as well as ever, has lost three times this summer to Sampras. That's four losses all summer, three to Sampras. Talk about revenge being in order. As nice as it was to win the Washington stop on the tour for the fifth time in his career, you can bet beating Sampras in New York would shoot to the top of Agassi's resume.
"I couldn't ask to feel more confident going into the Open," he said. If, understandably, his recent divorce from Shields has stressed him, it hasn't shown in his tennis, or in the way he deals with stardom the second time around. He'll start the U.S. Open as the No. 2-ranked player in the world, the No. 2 seed, and almost certainly the rooting favorite in New York, where they love anybody who gets off the mat swinging.
Even Agassi recognizes a potential story line when he sees one. "Certainly, since the French Open," he said, "it feels like everything in my life is icing on the cake."