No sooner had Andre Agassi walked off the court last Saturday
than he received the devastating news. Having dusted Pat Rafter
in the semifinals of the Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, Fla.,
Agassi was informed that he would lose an hour of sleep that
night because of the switch to daylight saving time. "I need that
extra rest," he lamented. Yet he arrived for Sunday's final
against Jan-Michael Gambill looking no worse for wear. "I just
changed my clock when I got back to my room," he said. "After
that, I didn't think about it."
Overcoming time is nothing new for Agassi. Less than a month
before his 31st birthday, he's playing the best tennis of his
colorful career and registering the most smashing results for
someone north of 30 since the aging Jimmy Connors's triumphs of
nearly 20 years ago. On the heels of successfully defending his
Australian Open title in January and beating Pete Sampras to win
the prestigious Indian Wells Masters Series event in March,
Agassi thrashed Gambill 7-6, 6-1, 6-0 to push his 2001 match
record to 22-2. Agassi's total in the ATP's point race is more
than double that of his closest competitor, Arnaud Clement of
France. "Right now, at least on hard courts, he's far above
everyone else," says Croatia's Ivan Ljubicic, who suffered a 6-4,
6-4 battery by Agassi in the quarterfinals. "It's like, How is he
still doing it?"
That's a good question, particularly in a sport in which top
players tend to peak in their mid-20s. Consider that Bjorn Borg
and John McEnroe failed to win a Grand Slam event after age 25,
and that Rafter and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, 28 and 27, respectively,
are pondering retirement. The first explanation that Agassi
proffers for his success is his conditioning. "It's not just an
asset, it's absolutely necessary," he says.
The tales of Agassi's vomit-inducing workouts near his house in
Las Vegas have been repeated ad nauseam. Suffice it to say that
Agassi, the fittest player on the circuit, reaches balls that
would scarcely draw a wave from other players, and he has no
difficulty enduring six sets in 24 hours, as he did last weekend.
His stamina also enables him to inflict body blows, engaging in
lengthy, corner-painting rallies that break an opponent's resolve
as a match progresses. "Being in this kind of shape, Andre has
what all athletes want," says his coach, Brad Gilbert. "He has a
healthy, able body, and he has the mind and experience of a
30-year-old who has been playing for years."
Agassi is judicious about his schedule, too. Following the 2000
Australian Open, he headed to Zimbabwe for a Davis Cup tie. He
didn't lose a match in Australia or Africa, but he was so wiped
out when he returned to the U.S. that he never regained his
footing and failed to win another event the rest of the year.
This year he plans to limit the number of tournaments he plays,
including Masters Series events.
He's also exhibiting a level of focus that he hasn't always
shown. Earlier in his career he played a kind of hide-and-seek
with his tennis, performing spectacularly in one match and poorly
in the next. Now he is "fixed in," as he puts it, dedicating
himself year-round and refusing to tolerate on-court lapses.
During matches he does everything from returning serve to asking
for a towel with an unblinking intensity. "At some point you have
to make up your mind: Is this what I want to be doing?" he says.
"When the answer is yes, it doesn't make sense to cheat
Agassi has done plenty to conjure up eternal tennis youth, but
it's hard to exaggerate his timeless gifts. Able to see the ball
earlier than any other player, he has a talent for spanking shots
on the rise, not unlike a cricket batsman. In his first match in
Key Biscayne, against 19-year-old Taylor Dent, Agassi returned a
142-mph serve as though it were propped on a tee. Against Rafter,
the game's best serve-and-volleyer, Agassi unleashed a
devastating one-two combination of ankle-high returns and
surpassing passing shots. "With Andre we're talking about an
unbelievable ball striker, maybe the best ever," says Gilbert.
"That hasn't shifted through the years."
If Agassi's preternatural talent has been a constant, plenty else
about him has changed--dramatically. Who would have guessed that
an icon once known for his two-toned mullet would have less than
a tennis ball's worth of fuzz on his head? ("I feel old when I
see mousse in my opponents' hair," Agassi says.) That the onetime
embodiment of Las Vegas flamboyance would drive a nondescript
Lincoln Town Car, wear only neutral tones on the court and
quietly give millions to charity? That the player once labeled a
punk would become tennis's sage, an island of self-awareness in a
sea of delusion? "We're all shocked when we think back to who we
were 10 years ago," Agassi says of his image-is-everything phase.
"Let's just say I'm happier waking up the person I am now."
Agassi's evolution is thrown into particularly sharp relief when
compared with Sampras's. Linked inextricably as the two best
players of their era, Agassi and Sampras epitomized style versus
substance--with Agassi cast as the former. Now the roles seem
reversed. Sampras moved to Beverly Hills and married a movie
starlet, Bridgette Wilson; Agassi bought a mansion in subdued
Marin County and has a girlfriend, Steffi Graf, who is so shy
that she rarely sits in his box when he plays. Sampras is a
regular at Los Angeles movie premieres and Lakers games; Agassi
prefers quiet dinners with friends.
Likewise, their games are going in opposite directions. While
Agassi has never been in better form, the slumping Sampras has
lost his imperial presence. He is without a tournament victory
since Wimbledon, and he fell in his second match at Key Biscayne,
to 18-year-old Andy Roddick--who served notice, at 138 mph, that
the hype about him is justified. Afterward, Sampras observed that
Roddick had felt no pressure and could swing for the fences.
Agassi was stunned to hear this. "There's no excuse for Pete to
feel pressure," he says. "If there's any time you should let your
game fly, it's when you've won 13 Grand Slam titles and the other
guy's 18 years old. So much of tennis is confidence."
Venus Williams could attest to that. The House of Williams came
to Key Biscayne embroiled in controversy born in Indian Wells.
There, moments before a much-anticipated semifinal match against
her sister, Serena, Venus withdrew because of tendinitis in her
right knee. Unless you've been living in Ulan Bator, you know the
rest: Allegations flew that the Williamses' outlandish father,
Richard, orchestrates the outcomes of matches between them and
had ordered Venus to default. The fans booed Serena as she went
on to win the title. Richard complained that the tennis world was
awash in racism and envy of his daughters. Despite plenty of
goading--including Martina Hingis's claim that the charges of
racism were "total nonsense"--Venus declined to join the fray last
week and remained focused on tennis.
Showing no ill effects of the tendinitis, Williams overpowered
Hingis in the semifinals and then outlasted Jennifer Capriati
4-6, 6-1, 7-6 in a gripping final. Though Williams faced eight
match points--five in a spellbinding 26-point game as Capriati
served for the match at 6-5 in the third set--and committed 71
unforced errors, her confidence never waned. "I never really
thought I might lose," she said. Was her title particularly sweet
given the contretemps of the past few weeks? "I don't worry about
that," she said. "All I know is that Serena and I are never going
to stop winning unless we die or get injured or get old."
Agassi would contend that the third scenario isn't necessarily
fatal. On Sunday, having finished off Gambill, Agassi performed
his customary kiss-and-bow routine for the adoring capacity
crowd. An hour after the match, he was escorted to a courtesy car
behind the stadium so he could catch a flight back to Las Vegas.
Before climbing in, he dropped his bag and obliged a throng of
autograph seekers that were clustered nearby. When a security
guard asked Agassi about making his flight, the best player in
tennis waved him off. He had plenty of time left.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES Crosscourt No matter what position he was in, Agassi had little difficulty in the semis or the final.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES
Despite plenty of goading, Venus refused to join in the flap
about racism in tennis.