Monday, July 4, 2011

Agassi, entering Hall, recalled at 16 -- Part 1

  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 first installment of a two-part series on Agassi's visit to Reno excerpted from my 1997 biography, “Agassi & Ecstasy.”

     It was the strangest interview I have ever conducted. Andre Agassi was the subject. Sort of.
   Agassi, his older brother Phillip and I sat on the deck of the Lakeridge Tennis Club overlooking Reno, Nev., on a pleasant evening in early May 1986.
   Andre, who had just turned 16, was playing in his first full tournament as a professional – the $10,000 Nevada State Open. The singles champion would earn $1,600. That’s pocket change for Andre now, but it was a big deal to him then. Phillip, 23, was also  entered.
   I was covering the tournament for the Reno Gazette-Journal, where I worked as a sportswriter.
   Even before we sat down to talk, it was apparent that Andre wasn’t your ordinary interview subject.
   First, there was Andre’s hair. Yes, he had some back then. A lot of it. His naturally brown hair was bleached blond on top, short on the sides and shaggy in the back.
   Then there was Andre’s fingernail. The nail on his right little finger was about an inch long and painted red. All of his other fingernails were cut short and unpainted.
   (Andre had no earrings, as he does now.)
   Phillip, on the other hand, looked … well, normal, even though his hair was already thinning. Even then, Andre was unique.
   I spoke to the Agassi brothers for about 30 minutes for a feature story in that Sunday’s newspaper. The story was on both of them, but Andre was the focus.
   And here’s the most unusual part of all: Andre uttered three sentences during the entire interview. Phillip spoke for him the rest of the time.
   Andre broke his silence only when asked about his first Grand Prix tournament earlier that year and about his father. Both answers were revealing.
   Andre had lost to Mats Wilander, then ranked third in the world, 6-1, 6-1 in the second round of the $405,000 Pilot Pen Classic at La Quinta, Calif., in late February 1986.
   “There was a crowd of 4,000 people,” Agassi said. “I was so nervous, I couldn’t hit the ball.”
   Andre also insisted that he never felt pressure from his devoted, demanding father and coach, Emmanuel (Mike) Agassi. If Andre had been completely open, we would have been there for hours. Instead, he looked me directly in the eye and said with a straight face, “I always wanted to make him happy and proud.”
   That is unquestionably true. Unfortunately for Andre, almost nothing would ever be quite good enough for Mike. Not winning Wimbledon. Not dating Brooke Shields. Talk about hard to please.
   Nine years later, Andre admitted in a penetrating interview on 60 Minutes that his father put enormous pressure on him “to not accept losing.”
   Andre’s reticence in the Reno interview was probably due to cockiness. He was not, however, one of those snotty athletes who look everywhere but at you, tap their finger impatiently and otherwise act bored. Andre listened intently. He just let Phillip do most of the talking.
   Believe it or not, Andre was still obscure at this point. It wasn’t difficult to get an interview with him and Phillip – such as it was. There were no autograph hounds hovering over us that day on the Lakeridge deck. It was just the three of us having a cordial chat – OK, the two of us.
   You knew – you just knew – that it would never be like this again. Agassi would become not only a top-10 player but a phenomenon. He had the game – nobody blasted forehands and returns of serve the way this kid did, even in the pros – and the charisma. He was Tiger Woods before Tiger Woods and, as we’ll see, Dennis Rodman before Dennis Rodman.
   Several players in the tournament disagreed about Agassi’s future. Although he won the tournament, he struggled against club pros and aspiring touring pros, and his behavior was poor.
   But the other players probably didn’t know that Agassi, at 15, was already beating veteran touring pros.
   Or that Agassi was just coming off of a grueling five-week satellite circuit (equivalent to the low minor leagues in baseball) in Florida and South Carolina.
   Or that Agassi had to adjust not only from sea level to Reno’s 4,498-foot altitude (so did the other players, most of whom came from Northern California), but from the Southeast’s humidity to Reno’s dry air.
   In any case, Agassi quickly made a splash on the pro tour and would go on to achieve just about everything in tennis: win Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the Australian Open, an Olympic gold medal and the ATP Tour World Championship; reach No. 1 in the rankings; and play on three Davis Cup championship teams.
   Agassi was so good that he felt he could win with a diet from hell and little or no preparation. To a large degree, he was right. His hand-eye coordination is extraordinary. His return of serve is considered the best ever and his backhand textbook perfect.
       

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