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Andre Agassi, fatter, funnier and less hirsute, made a smash return at Wimbledon

Andre Agassi, that rugged individualist, has never been one to bow to convention or ceremony, but this was ridiculous. Last week at Wimbledon, Agassi removed his shirt on Centre Court to reveal a belly that flopped over his waist and a nearly hairless torso that nicely set off his long hair and stubbled beard.

Agassi arrived at Wimbledon to defend his singles title looking hopelessly unfit and shaved in all the wrong places. He had played, by his own estimation, exactly one hour of tennis in the last month. He was suffering from tendinitis in his right wrist, which, he said, had almost kept him from entering the tournament. He had, judging by his double chin, also been hitting the hoagies.

However, as he has done so often, Agassi defied predictions of his early demise. Inspired by teen squeals and standing ovations, he dropped only two sets in defeating Bernd Karbacher of Germany, Jo√£o Cunha-Silva of Portugal and Patrick Rafter of Australia before taking on ninth-seeded Richard Krajicek of Holland on Monday in the round of 16.

Krajicek, who beat Agassi 6-2, 7-5 when they last met, three months ago, possesses one of the fastest serves in the game, but Agassi, known for his huge returns, stunned everyone, including himself, by winning in straight sets, 7-5, 7-6, 7-6. The tiebreaker scores were 9-7 and 10-8. Apart from the small brace on his wrist, Agassi showed no ill effects from cither his injury or the long layoff. He had just five break points against Krajicek's serve and won three of them. Agassi was to meet Pete Sampras in the quarterfinals on Wednesday, and he had a good chance of making it into the semis because Sampras had been struggling somewhat with tendinitis in his right shoulder.

There was no denying the powerful chemistry between Agassi and the fans at Wimbledon. Set him on the hallowed ground of Centre Court, and he is suddenly James Brown at the Apollo Theatre. Or Bjorn Borg at Centre Court in the mid-1970s.

"We feed off each other," said Agassi of the Wimbledon crowds. "They love to have me, and I love to be here."

That was good news for the London tabloids, which treated Agassi's performance as one part heroic comeback and one part farce. Between his first- and second-round matches, the Daily Star reported that Agassi had removed much of his body hair, and it published before-and-after photos. Agassi was unabashed by the exposure. When he changed his shirt during his second-round victory over Cunha-Silva, he bared his upper body to the wolf-whistling crowd. At a postmatch press conference Agassi had this exchange with a reporter:

Q: Did you remove your body hair?

A: I guess you could say that, yeah.

Q: Could you tell us why?

A: It makes me a little more aerodynamic out there on the courts, you know?

Q: What method did you use, Andre, to have it removed?

A: Well, you know there will be times where, depending on what my other options are, I'll do it myself, but if there are other options, I'll have somebody else do it. But I'm very selective.

Q: Is there anyone you particularly like to do it for you?

A: Let me put it this way: I wouldn't let you do it.

Agassi would not specify his method of hair removal, or why he did it, except to say, "The girls like me better that way." When a tournament official suggested that the conversation return to tennis, Agassi said, "No, I'm having fun with this." And so was the press, which came up with such headlines as IT MAKES ME SO HAIRO-DYNAMIC!, HAIR I AM FOLKS and WHERE'S THE HAIR-GASSI?

To the further delight of the tabloids, Agassi confirmed that he would soon be joined by Barbra Streisand. He acknowledged that they had been talking on the phone and planned to meet in London. "I don't have a problem talking about Barbra," he says. "I've discussed the topic with her. As long as everything has a good feeling, it's O.K. People want to speculate on a love affair and a romance, and they wish it to be true."

When asked if the rumors about a romance were true, Agassi coyly replied, "Well, when I say she's a friend of mine, it means a lot." Agassi's good-humored dealings with the tabloids reflected his growing affection for Wimbledon and its fans. Asked if he was offended by the scrutiny given his personal life by members of the press, Agassi said, "To be honest, they could do worse. I'm 50 percent humoring them. It's harmless."

The English have a shorter, gentler history with Agassi than do U.S. tennis fans, who know that his showboating can be both insincere and cruel. The Brits even seem to have forgiven Agassi for refusing to play Wimbledon from 1988 to '90, when he maintained that he didn't like grass. "Most places I go, 20 to 30 percent of the people go out of the way to cheer against me," he says. "So at Wimbledon, it's incredible."

Moreover, Agassi's nimble scampering at the baseline provides a welcome respite from the serve-and-volley rhythm that can become so boring on grass. His five-set victory over Goran Ivanisevic in last year's final was only the 13th match he had ever played at Wimbledon. His reaction to the win—dropping to his knees and weeping facedown in the grass—moved even cynics, although they were quick to point out that a videotape of the incident showed that his coach, Nick Bollettieri, may have choreographed Agassi's response with a signal from the stands.

"They may have a better perspective on me," says Agassi of his fans in England. "I know that some people are skeptical of me and wonder if I'm sincere. But here, on one Sunday afternoon, I fulfilled a lifelong dream. These people saw it. They've seen a side of me a lot of others haven't."

Seldom has a champion been so ill-prepared to defend a Grand Slam title as Agassi was. In the past year he has suffered from both lethargy and an array of aches and pains. He bought a private jet this winter to ease his travel, stocking it with his favorite junk foods, but since the 1992 Wimbledon he has played only 13 tournaments. He skipped the Australian Open because of bronchitis and the French Open because of his wrist.

Three weeks ago, Agassi says, his wrist was so painful he could not do a push-up or get a free throw to the basket, let alone play tennis. He was treated with cortisone—his trainer, Gil Reyes, blamed his bloated appearance at Wimbledon on the drug—and a week later he began practicing, shortening his service motion to avoid aggravating the wrist. He entered a Wimbledon tune-up in Halle, Germany, and lost in the first round to 58th-ranked Carl-Uwe Steeb. That led some observers to predict that he would become the first defending Wimbledon champion to lose in the opening round since Manuel Santana in 1967. As it was, his erratic and infrequent play prompted the tournament committee to seed him eighth, the lowest a defending men's champion has been seeded at Wimbledon.

Even Agassi was surprised that he was still in the tournament on Monday. By surviving four rounds, he proved once again that, like him or not, he always seems to land on his adroit little feet. "I've never been one to go on a lot of practice," he said last week. "If anyone can go on no practice, it's me."



The tabs, the fans and his foes found Agassi's first-week performance to be irresistible.



[See caption above.]



Security prefers that Agassi and others sit sideways during changeovers.



A paunchy Agassi barely broke a sweat in sweeping four matches.



Despite appearances, Agassi gave these fans the shirt off his back. He just changed first.