He is almost monk-like in his appearance, devout in plying his trade. His hair is shaved almost to the scalp, and his clothes are entirely black, with no decoration. He doesn't yell into the stands midway through matches anymore, doesn't take his focus off his opponent, doesn't argue with chair umpires.
Of all the things people predicted would become of Andre Agassi as he crashed through his early twenties, few would have guessed he would end up like this.
"He has become exactly the kind of player we would all like to become," said Mariano Zabaleta, the latest to fall to Agassi in a 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 win at the Australian Open on Friday. "There were periods of time on the court when I lost my concentration, but that is the difference between Agassi and me--he never lost his. He is playing like he is in another world. I don't think anyone can beat him here, even [Pete] Sampras."
Sampras certainly looks vulnerable after struggling through a 6-7 (11-9), 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-3 win over Zimbabwe's Wayne Black, although he will have a chance to rebound Sunday when he plays the Czech Republic's Slava Dosedel. By contrast, top seed Martina Hingis breezed past Australian Alicia Molik, 6-2, 6-3, this morning, while Lindsay Davenport looked indestructible Friday night as she demolished Russian qualifier Alina Jidkova, 6-0, 6-1, in 45 minutes.
Davenport will next face No. 11 seed Anna Kournikova in the fourth round on Sunday, and while the match is expected to be well-attended, it will not be anywhere near as highly anticipated as the match scheduled for later that afternoon between local favorite Mark Philippoussis and Agassi. Australians are eager to find out how their hard-serving hero will match up against the game's best returner, although if Agassi's matches this week are any indication, the end result may not please the hometown crowd.
Agassi has been razor-sharp, focused and seemingly more serious than almost anyone else here. It is a strange thing to say about a player who used to be known for his long, dyed-blond hair, his "image is everything" camera commercials and his arguments with Wimbledon officials over his brightly colored clothing. Yet the evidence is overwhelming, in everything from his performance--he has not lost a set here--to his elder-statesmanlike demeanor. When asked what he wished he knew when he was young that he knows now, the 29-year-old Agassi echoed the advice of fathers to teenage boys all over the world.
"I'd probably tell myself to cut my hair," he said. "Every time I see a picture of me with long hair, I want to burn it.
"I think years of experience teaches you a lot of things. I think you learn not only how to focus and how to squeeze a match out on the court, but you also learn how to maximize your time spent in training, spent in practice, and you know how not to waste your mental energy before its necessary. You learn a lot of things."
Agassi certainly knew how to jab Zabaleta at exactly the right times Friday night, never really letting the Argentine into the match. He broke Zabaleta early in each set, and even on the rare occasion when Zabaleta was able to break Agassi back, Agassi never wavered, continuing to run Zabaleta around the court.
A few hours earlier, Davenport had been similarly invincible in her match, winning 10 consecutive games before Jidkova finally was able to win her serve. The crowd gave Jidkova a round of applause for finally breaking Davenport's momentum, but the moment was short-lived as Davenport raced on to claim the match.
The performance was something of a relief for Davenport, who had felt her game was somewhat out of sorts despite reaching the final of a tournament in Sydney last week.
"Hopefully I'm getting better because now the tournament starts to get more difficult, so there's no time to second-guess yourself," she said. "This will be the second time I've played Anna in a week, so it should be interesting. I know she really wants to do well, especially in a Grand Slam, so I'm sure she will be really fired up and want to win the match."
Davenport hopes to better her semifinal appearance at this tournament last year, although she does not have as much room to improve as Agassi, who last year was ousted in the fourth round by fellow American Vince Spadea. The loss came at a time when Agassi was having trouble focusing on tennis, in part because of his divorce to actress Brooke Shields. This year, the recently retired Steffi Graf is in Agassi's box during matches, and Agassi seems much more involved in his game.
"You know, it was a difficult time last year," he said. "Personally, I was in the process of going through a lot of changes, and all you have to do is be just a little bit off and it's possible to look horrific out there.
"I think ultimately I am not sure if I believed in my game quite as much as I do now and my fitness, and now I am out on the court feeling like I am going to make somebody beat me from start to finish. That's always a good feeling, when you are out there focused on making it a miserable day for your opponent."