When he was a wild-haired rebel who ate indiscriminately, slept as late as he liked and flouted conventional training, Andre Agassi needed only to pick up a tennis racket to make the magic unfold.
But now 34 and the father of two, Agassi has learned it takes meticulous preparation to play a champion's game against the muscle-bound, hungry, hard-hitting youngsters of today.
Central to Agassi's strategy for the French Open was rest, so he sat out the preliminary clay-court tune-ups in order to arrive at Roland Garros as fresh as possible.
That strategy collapsed around him Monday -- along with Agassi's once-brilliant game -- as the former No. 1 player was handed the most stunning defeat of his career by an unknown Frenchman, Jerome Haehnel, who had entered the tournament with no coach, a No. 271 world ranking and doubts about whether he wanted to continue bouncing around the lower rungs of the pro game.
It took Haehnel only 2 hours 2 minutes to vanquish the 1999 French Open champion, 6-4, 7-6 (7-4), 6-3, on center court at Roland Garros stadium, thanks largely to Agassi's flurry of unforced errors. The tournament's scoring computer failed in the first set, so it was impossible to put a precise number to the ugly display, but by journalists' count Agassi sprayed upwards of 50 shots wide, long or into the net during his first-round loss.
Agassi displayed little emotion as he gathered his bags and walked off the court with his head bowed, not acknowledging fans who stood in tribute. But afterward his eyes appeared to mist up, and he stopped short of guaranteeing that he would ever return to Roland Garros, where his 1999 victory completed a career grand slam.
"You want to come back, but you just don't know," Agassi said. "It's a year away; that's a long time for me right now. Chances get less every year, for sure."
Agassi's longtime trainer, Gil Reyes, was both heartbroken and baffled by the performance. And with a blunt wistfulness, he acknowledged the inevitable: Regardless of how many more French Opens Agassi ekes out of his career, that career is coming an end.
"Who knows how many more French Opens we have -- how many more tournaments we have?" asked Reyes, who has spent the last days mentally chronicling the details of Roland Garros, the lovely stadium set amid a Parisian park, just in case it is his last time here.
"We're coming down the homestretch," Reyes said. "We're down the homestretch, and all I ask is that we don't limp across the finish line. That's all I want."
Shorter term, the loss will force Agassi to rethink his strategy in preparation for Wimbledon, which starts in four weeks. It was Agassi's second humiliation in a row, coming on the heels of a first-round loss to Serbian qualifier Nenad Zimonjic in Austria last week.
"Ordinarily I'd say we'd need rest and to get him freshened up," Reyes said. "But right now, rest is not what we need."
A smattering of fans was on hand when Agassi strode onto center court for what promised to be a rout against Haehnel, who has been toiling for years on the satellite circuits. He had to slog through last week's qualifying rounds just to make his tour-level debut in the French Open only to learn, to devastating effect, that his first-round opponent would be Agassi -- his favorite player.
"I had a very bad day when I found out," said Haehnel, a baby-faced 23-year-old with sun-bleached hair.
Agassi wasn't himself from the start, moving awkwardly on the red clay and misfiring time and again on his normally reliable backhand. With nothing to lose, Haehnel took quick advantage, breaking Agassi in the ninth game to claim the first set, 6-4.
Both players held serve through the second set, forcing a tiebreaker that should have favored Agassi, the oldest and most experienced player in the men's draw. But Haehnel stayed loose, hitting with precision while Agassi seemed unable to control the ball's placement. With a spinning serve that veered into Agassi's torso, Haehnel won the tiebreaker, 7-4, to take a two-set lead.
As groundskeepers smoothed the court, fans poured into the center court stands on news that Agassi was in trouble.
"Allez, Andre!" they cried, not prepared to see the likeable past champion fall so ignobly, even if it was to a Frenchman.
He answered with flashes of form -- a forehand winner here, deft drop shot there. But nothing seemed to rattle Haehnel until he broke Agassi to take a 3-1 lead and suddenly became cognizant of the colossal upset at stake.
Agassi broke back at love to even the score at three games each.
Haehnel let out a yelp after ripping a passing shot down the line for another break to go up 5-3. Serving for the match, he took a 40-love lead. Agassi staved off one match point with a forehand winner. Haehnel answered with an ace against the game's most feared returner, and the crowd shot to its feet with applause as Agassi strode to the net and extended a handshake.
"For somebody like me that has never been in the real circuit, it was amazing to play against him today," Haehnel said. "I was trying not to be overimpressed."
For Agassi and Reyes, the hard work begins Tuesday, when they start reassessing their approach against the game's younger, faster players who keep coming in waves.
"I'm not so sure," Reyes said, shaking his head as he weighed the task. "The answers don't come as easily now."