Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Agassi, entering Hall, recalled at 16 -- Part 2

   Twenty-five years ago, I covered 16-year-old Andre Agassi’s march to the singles title of the $10,000 Nevada State Open in Reno.
   The charismatic Las Vegan went on to earn every major singles achievement in tennis. He captured all four Grand Slam titles (one of seven men in history to do so), claimed an Olympic gold medal, played on two Davis Cup championship teams, won the year-end ATP World Tour Championships and held the world No. 1 ranking for 101 straight weeks. 
   On Saturday, the former Sacramento Capital of World TeamTennis will be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame – joining his wife, Steffi Graf – in Newport, R.I. 
   As great an impact as Agassi made on the court, though, he might be making a bigger one off it. Ten years ago, he founded the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, a highly acclaimed charter school for underprivileged children in Las Vegas. Agassi hopes to launch as many as 75 charter schools in the United States in the next several years.
   Following is the second installment of a two-part series on Agassi's visit to Reno excerpted from my 1997 biography, “Agassi & Ecstasy.”

   Fans at the $10,000 Nevada State Open in Reno in May 1986 got a glimpse of what was to come on the international circuit. Agassi amazed fans at the Lakeridge Tennis Club with his explosive shotmaking, amused them with his baggy tennis shorts and two-tone punk haircut and alienated them with his petulance. Any one of the three would have made Agassi stand out. Together, they made him a phenomenon.
   Tired after a five-week USTA satellite circuit, Agassi played in Reno the following week only as a favor to Phillip.
   "I thought I was going to have a couple weeks of rest after five tough weeks, but my brother said he wanted me to come up here and play doubles with him," Andre said. "I just made the best of it. ... "
   Ironically, Andre won the singles title in Reno, but lost early in doubles. Even in singles, though, Agassi struggled against far inferior competition, surviving four straight three-set matches before the final. In addition to his fatigue, the thin air at Reno's 4,498-foot altitude favored serve-and-volleyers, not baseliners like Agassi.
   Agassi showed his frustration throughout the tournament. He smashed a couple of balls against the fence, sarcastically criticized his opponent's game, suggestively put his racket between his legs and muttered "Shut up" when fans applauded points for his opponent. None of this would have been tolerated at the (Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla.), but Agassi was never penalized in Reno.
   "I don't blame him (for his behavior)," said Scott Lipton, Agassi's quarterfinal victim. "It's society. There's pressure from the very beginning. (John) McEnroe and (Jimmy) Connors get away with it, and the kids see they can, too."
   Lipton, a 26-year-old former touring pro at the time, called for an umpire in the quarterfinals after accusing Agassi of cheating him out of a point. Players called their own lines in the tournament. The umpire sat at courtside for the rest of the match, and there were no further incidents.
   The semifinal between Agassi and Matt Wooldridge was a study in contrasts. Agassi, seeded third, was a volatile 16-year-old baseliner. Wooldridge, the top seed and defending champion from Santa Clara, Calif. (just north of San Jose), was a serene 29-year-old serve-and-volleyer.
   It didn't take long for sparks to fly. In the seventh game of the first set, Agassi hit a forehand long. Wooldridge, a teaching professional, hesitated for a split second before calling the ball out. "Nice late call," Agassi yelled.
   Agassi's bad-boy reputation was well-known at Lakeridge by then, and Wooldridge obviously had decided he wasn't going to put up with any shenanigans from the kid. "Shut up," Wooldridge uncharacteristically snapped.
   Wooldridge, who had been the director of tennis at Lakeridge from 1980 to 1984, won the first set 6-3 and led 3-1 in the second set.
   "He was getting more and more upset and being kind of a baby about it ... " Wooldridge said. "He was saying derogatory things about my game out of frustration in front of my 'home' crowd."
   Wooldridge hesitated when asked if he remembered what Agassi said.
   "Um, no, not, I mean ... not really," Wooldridge said. "I, I do, but it, it wasn't really important. It doesn't need to be stated, put it that way."
   When pressed further, Wooldridge said: "Um, you know, he was just, um, referring to how I hit the ball as, uh, you know, weak or wimpy or whatever the words would be. Actually, the words were a lot more (explicit) than that, but I'd rather not say."
   Profanity?
   "Yeah."
   Faggot?
   "No, it had more profanity than that."
   Referring to the female anatomy?
   "No comment."
   Wooldridge said he told Agassi to "shut up and play tennis. Unfortunately, that's kind of what happened. ... I should have allowed him to continue on his way."
   Agassi won 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 and beat 10th-seeded Doug Stone, a touring pro from Berkeley, Calif., ranked No. 483, 6-3, 6-2 later that day for the title. There were no incidents in the final, which lasted only 50 minutes. But then, just about everything went Agassi's way.
   "He hits the ball real hard," Stone, a Bjorn Borg look-alike with short hair, said after the match. "When he's on, you don't feel there's a whole lot you can do."
   Wooldridge said in retrospect that he didn't envision Agassi becoming one of the top players in the world eventually.
   "Nooo, no, uh-uh," Wooldridge said. "All of us who played tennis at the time didn't foresee that at all."
   Agassi was too inconsistent to be headed for stardom, according to Wooldridge.
   "I was impressed with how hard he actually could hit the ball," he said. "But for a set and a half, I saw the ball going out all the time. Then for the next set and a half, I saw the ball always going in. ... In the years to come, I became very impressed with how much he had improved."

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