Agassi: 20 Years On...
by James Buddell|
Twenty years ago, Andre Agassi wrestled away the Wimbledon trophy from the world’s finest serve and volleyers. It was a title few believed he was destined to win.
Green fees are around $500 per round. Tee times are one-hour apart. Only a handful of guests each day get to play the 7,239-yard Shadow Creek Golf Course, built by business magnate Steve Wynn, in 1989, in northern Las Vegas. Here Andre Agassi came to re-group immediately after his 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 loss to Jim Courier, his former Bollettieri Academy sparring partner, in the 1992 Roland Garros semi-finals.
Speaking exclusively to DEUCE, Agassi remembers, 20 years on, “When we were playing, Steve asked me, ‘So what is next?’
I said, ‘Wimbledon.’
He asked, ‘Do you think you can win it?’
I told him, ‘Very few people show up thinking they can win it.’
He then said, ‘If you get to the final, I will watch you play. I will be in the Mediterranean at that time.’”
Agassi played nine holes.
Ten days later, the world’s 14th-best player had yet to hit a tennis ball. At midnight, five days before the start of The Championships on 22 June, Agassi made a decision. Picking up the phone, he dialled his coach of eight years. The man his father, Mike, had entrusted his faith in 1984.
“I always found that the more I practised on grass, the worse I became”
Two thousand, three hundred and seventy miles away, in Bradenton, Florida, Nick Bollettieri had been waiting. He knows it’s Andre. It’s three o’clock in the morning. It can only be Andre. He must be ready to hit. Bollettieri, whose autobiography, It Ain’t Easy, four years in writing, will be published later this year, recalled to DEUCE his conversation with Agassi.
“‘Nick, what are you doing?’
‘I’ve been waiting to hear your call, Andre.’
‘Nick, let’s go down to Boca Raton and we’ll practise.’
Bollettieri arrived early, a few racquets under his arm. Agassi handed him a bag of clubs. Joining Robert Seguso and watched by Agassi’s girlfriend, Wendi Stewart, they played a round of golf.
“The day before we were supposed to leave [for Wimbledon], he said, ‘Nick, let’s go and hit some balls on a hard court,’” recalls Bollettieri. “We set a time. Hit for 20 minutes on a green-coloured hard-court, then stopped and headed home.
“Andre was a character. I understood that. All the boys at the academy said, ‘How do you put up with this guy?’ But I saw something special.”
It’s a pity that Agassi didn’t see something special in Wimbledon.
“I always found that the more I practised on grass, the worse I became,” says Agassi. “I started to develop twitches in my swing and doubts would spread in my game.”
His first appearance at the All England Club, in 1987, lasted almost as long as it took Bollettieri to settle in his courtside chair. “He played [Henri] Leconte. I didn’t even sit down. The match was over [6-2, 6-1, 6-2]. He hated the grass and told me he’d never return. In fact, he didn’t return for four years, until 1991, when he reached the quarter-finals [l. to David Wheaton].” During his self-imposed exile from The Championships, Agassi stayed at home, jogged and lifted weights.
Conditioning coach Gil Reyes entered Agassi’s life shortly after his 6-3, 4-6, 2-6, 7-6(2), 6-1 final loss to Alberto Mancini at the 1989 Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome. Reyes told DEUCE, “He said his body had nothing left. He felt weak against Mancini. He was overpowered and his movement was impaired. On clay, the centre of movement, on soft courts, is in the thighs. He said he never wanted to feel that way on the court again. That was his main drive.” By February 1990, Gil had ‘officially’ signed on to work with Agassi. They won their first tournament together at the San Francisco indoors (d. Witsken).
Reyes knew Agassi wasn’t a weight-lifter. “I knew I couldn’t go to any gym and put Andre on any machine unless I knew for certain what area it worked. That’s why I started to build machines. Andre asked me, ‘Do you know how to weld?’ ‘No,’ I admitted. But in order to use safer machines, I used my garage to produce safe and productive machines that worked different body parts.” In March 2012, BILT by Agassi & Reyes was launched to promote 12 machines the Las Vegan used during his career.
“Arthur [Ashe] whispered to me, ‘Take care of the kid, he is going to be very important”
“That began the process of getting stronger. I told him, ‘I know nothing about tennis. I make no tennis promises.’ He knew I was an athlete guy. I wasn’t a tennis guy. He said, ‘No worries. I’ll handle that. Just get me stronger.’ Sometimes he would ask a question I did not know the answer to. I didn’t bluff it and went away and found out. Our relationship was based on faith that we each gave 100 per cent.”
Ten months after their first introduction, Reyes - who had already learned to weld together his own fitness machines in his garage - was standing in an Indian Wells hotel lobby with Bollettieri and Agassi’s International Management Group agent, Bill Shelton. It was Reyes’ first year on tour. “Bill introduced me to Arthur Ashe, who was courteous, polite and cordial,” says Reyes. “As I was ready to leave, Arthur whispered to me, ‘Take care of the kid, he is going to be very important. If he gets injured or anything, it is over.’” Reyes would never forget that advice.
Agassi weighed 152 pounds (70 kilograms) in May 1989. Shortly before Wimbledon in 1992, Agassi tipped the scales at 174 pounds (80 kg), having developed a “love-hate relationship with Reyes’ homemade Flexas machine, which helped to provide him speed and acceleration”, and taken part in sprints training, “to get faster”, with Carl Lewis, Leroy Burrell and their coach Tom Tellez at the University of Houston in January 1992. Says Reyes, “Andre never once told me to tone down the training. He knew the way the game was being played was going away from him. He was a baseliner, in an era of power and serve and volleyers. He felt guys were getting taller and bigger, so he knew he needed to fortify his body.”
Agassi lost seven of his first 13 matches to open the season and questions began to surface over the extra muscle that he had added. Did it hinder his swing? Maybe. But Agassi never criticised Reyes. “We implemented our plan and went over bumps,” says Reyes. “He felt good. He started to think it was all coming together. He felt strong and ready.”
Seventy-two hours before the start of the sport’s biggest tournament, in 1992, Agassi and his team - Wendi; his brother, Phillip; Shelton and Bollettieri - flew into London. Reyes, his strength coach, stayed in Las Vegas, to rest, after a lengthy period away from his family during the clay-court swing.
“When we went to Wimbledon, we gave a clinic in a department store,” remembers Bollettieri. “When he was asked, ‘How have you been practising?’ Andre said, ‘We’ve been practising for two weeks in Boca Raton.’ He then winked at me.”
For Agassi, it didn’t matter. He felt confident. He was ready to mix it with serve-volleyers, such as Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Michael Stich, and a new generation of emerging talent, Goran Ivanisevic and Pete Sampras. “Twelve months before, I had a chance to win the 1991 title,” says Agassi. “I was up a double-break in the fourth set against David Wheaton in the quarter-finals [but lost 6-2, 0-6, 3-6, 7-6(3), 6-2]. I therefore returned to Wimbledon excited at the prospect of being able to reach another Grand Slam final.”
Agassi’s ability to assimilate information and to know what might happen in different situations had stood him in good stead at Bollettieri’s academy. In his first-round match, against World No. 31 Andrei Chesnokov, he rode his luck. “The first match, we should have been thrown out of the tournament due to conduct,” remembers Bollettieri. “He played Chesnokov. He gave the referee Alan Mills, a great guy, all sorts of grief. Really, not very nice. We were fortunate to get through that [5-7, 6-1, 7-5, 7-5]. We could have bombed out.” Agassi was fined £850. He beat Eduardo Masso in the second round.
“The first match, we should have been thrown out of the tournament”
“Two of my first three opponents were baseliners [with the exception of Derrick Rostagno], which were always hard to face on grass,” says Agassi. “Chesnokov made you hit a lot of balls, but I started to dial in my game by the time I faced [qualifier Christian] Saceanu, in the fourth round, where I hit a clean ball. I let my shots fly.” Agassi was never seriously threatened in a 7-6(1), 6-1, 7-6(0) win.
At the house Agassi rented nearby, he sheltered from the rain, played backgammon, watched horror movies and got his agent Shelton to sing Nat King Cole songs. Never once did Agassi look at the draw. He would play one match at a time. No one in the team talked about tennis. That fortnight, nobody ran out for $250 McDonald’s orders as had happened in the past.
In a year when there had been so much discussion about the dominance of the serve in men’s tennis, Agassi was clearly moving towards the sort of form on his service returns - in a 4-6, 6-2, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3 victory over three-time former champion Becker - that would provide the perfect antidote. Afterwards, Becker said, “I have not seen anybody on grass playing that kind of tennis - I mean, from the back.”
Agassi, 20 years on, remembers, “Even after I beat Becker, who had reached four straight Wimbledon finals [1988-1991], in the quarter-finals, I did not feel I could beat anybody. I’d beaten Becker, who owned Centre Court, but there were too many great grass-court players, such as McEnroe, Sampras and Stich left in the draw. But it did give me an inner belief that made me feel this could be it.” For the first time since 1951, none of the top four seeds had reached the semi-finals.
Next up was 33-year-old John McEnroe. Appearing in his first Grand Slam championship semi-final since the 1990 US Open, McEnroe was the sentimental favourite. Eleven years older than the other three semi-finalists - Agassi, Ivanisevic and Sampras - he was playing his 200th major match and hoping to reach his sixth Wimbledon final. But there was one problem: McEnroe had been Agassi’s practice partner for the past two weeks and recommended that the 22 year old “shorten my strokes on the grass and to forget about hitting neutral balls like I’m playing on clay”. They had also played doubles together at Roland Garros, one month earlier.
Bollettieri recalls how the match unfolded. “McEnroe wanted to get into my boy’s head a bit. He tried to slice and keep the ball low, but Andre was able to strike the ball cleaner and his groundstrokes - including his return of serve - were magnificent.” Agassi operated his forehand like a pile-driver. Watched by the Archbishop of Canterbury and in glorious sunshine, he triumphed 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 in one hour and 51 minutes.
“The McEnroe match was the cleanest I played,” admits Agassi. “I saw the ball big, letting it fly. McEnroe had a different serve to Boris. He was an artistic performer. I never played perfect tennis in my career, but I did play matches where I felt in control and never left third gear. Against McEnroe, I felt I had another gear I could go to if I needed it. I was disciplined in the risks I was taking and everything worked.”
“Bollettieri’s advice to Agassi was simple, Go out and be Andre Agassi”
Agassi had reached his fourth Grand Slam championship final, his first on a grass-court - supposedly his worst surface. The press had already labelled him as a person who couldn’t get over the finish line, after he had been beaten by Andres Gomez at 1990 Roland Garros, Sampras at the 1990 US Open and Courier at 1991 Roland Garros. Agassi was believed to be his own toughest opponent. But, “for the first time, playing Ivanisevic, I wasn’t the favourite,” says Agassi. “It freed me up to play. I didn’t play scared and it taught me to go out and strike clean.”
Eighth seed Ivanisevic was a big serving left-hander. His ace count after six matches stood at 169. The 20-year-old Croatian had hit a personal best 36 aces past Sampras in a 6-7(4), 7-6(5), 6-4, 6-2 semi-final win. Agassi had never beaten Ivanisevic in two previous matches. “Back then the big servers had an advantage, but if a player could execute a first return you were able to take control of the point,” says Agassi. “For me, it was very hard without a big serve, so I had to take my chances.”
As a left-hander, McEnroe had enabled Agassi to find his rhythm on returning serves. The day before the final, McEnroe - who won the last of his three Wimbledon titles in 1984 - called his conqueror. “McEnroe told me, ‘Listen, you know what is going to happen. He will ace you a lot and have easy service games. But don’t get discouraged. You’ll have a few chances, so you must stay positive when he aces you.’”
Minutes before the championship match, 5’10” Agassi and 6’4” Ivanisevic both waited in the locker room. Only six of the 113 light blue-fronted lockers were in use now. In all, 128 singles players showed up, but it was guaranteed all but one would go away with a loss. Agassi and Ivanisevic both hoped today was their day. Bollettieri’s advice to Agassi was simple, “Enjoy the day, baby. You’ve waited for this. Go out and be Andre Agassi. Enjoy the match. God bless.” The finalists exited to the clubhouse, walked up seven carpeted steps, through a set of swinging doors, under a quotation from Rudyard Kipling’s poem If, past the eight-feet square Waiting Room and onto Centre Court, the cathedral.
Agassi recalls everything. Even 20 years on.
“Goran was a gunslinger,” says Agassi, who wore a triangular-shaped gold ring in his left ear during The Championships. “When the chances came at the start of the second and third sets, I took them. The fourth set had an inevitable feel. I was living on the edge, I couldn’t do anything. He was firing a lot of aces and winners. The flood gates had opened and I was up against it. In the fifth set, I served first. It was an advantage, because as long as I held serve, the pressure was on Goran to level the score line.
“I never felt I had the upper hand until the match was over. Early in the fifth set, he was holding easily and I was struggling. At 4-5, he served two double faults to go down 0/30. He missed his first serve on the next point and it then crossed my mind I may be able to win it. He aced me on his second serve. At 15/30, he hit an unreturnable serve. At that stage, I thought we’d be in for a titanic battle. It would only last for as long as I held serve. At 30/30, I managed to force Goran into hitting a half volley, which I ran for to hit a passing shot.
“On match point, he missed his first serve. The crowd started to wonder if Goran might hit a third double fault in the game. At this stage, everything was happening too fast. I knew I didn’t want to have any regrets in the future, that I hadn’t swung at a serve on match point. I remember swinging with all my might, connecting with it only to see Goran, mid-court and off-balance, volley my backhand into the net.”
“ I can remember what individual members of the crowd looked like, what the grass smelt like”
Agassi, blessed with great quickness of eye and feet, had triumphed 6-7(8), 6-4, 6-4, 1-6, 6-4 in two hours and 50 minutes to become the first baseliner since Bjorn Borg to capture the title. He was also the first to do so wearing a cap since Yvon Petra in 1946. “I fell to the ground,” remembers Agassi. “I could not believe it. The moment was all consuming. I couldn’t process what was happening. I can remember what individual members of the crowd looked like, what the grass smelt like as I lay on it and how the hairs on my body were standing up. I was overjoyed. It was a huge relief.”
Bollettieri, who jumped for joy and punched the air in celebration, admits, “When Andre hit the backhand hard at Goran’s body, I have never ever experienced such a feeling of ‘holy mackerel’. In all my years involved in tennis, even now 20 years on. It was something you cannot purchase.” Reyes, watching with his family in Las Vegas, experienced his own emotional rush. “My emotion was of the fulfilment of so much. Goals and aspirations. It was the justification for a really, really good guy. What so many dream of, but never accomplish. The lifting of a load of expectation off a really good young man. I knew how badly it had hurt to come so close. To be disappointed in those three previous Grand Slam finals.”
As Wendi, Phillip and Bollettieri celebrated in the players’ box, Agassi hugged the trophy, $265,000 the richer, with tears running down his cheeks. Bollettieri and Agassi hugged immediately back inside the locker room. “‘Holy ****!’ Andre’s brown eyes looked at me,” remembers Bollettieri. Not wanting to jinx anything, Agassi waited until after the final to hire a tuxedo for the Champions’ Ball.
Agassi recalls his emotion. “It was a big deal. Nick had - and still does - contribute a lot to the sport of tennis. While I begrudged his environment for a lot of years, I appreciated it. He had never been in the box to watch one of his players win Wimbledon. Gil had always supported me right from the start. He has always occupied a special place in my heart. We cried, when I first saw him upon my return. It was special for my brother, [Phillip], too. Tennis had been our whole life. The way we were trained and were brought up. We realised it had all been worth it.
“If I did nothing else, I had done everything that I had dared to dream. But, of course, once I won I wanted to win again. I had more dreams. To win Roland Garros, the US Open, in my own country, and make up for the final defeats.”
With the All England Club phasing out the tradition of the men’s and women’s singles titlists dancing together at the Champions’ Ball a few years earlier, Agassi did not get a chance to waltz with the 1992 women’s champion Steffi Graf, his future wife. But, as promised Wynn and his family made the trip. Agassi secured some tickets for the final. So, “after the Champions’ Ball, I flew back to Las Vegas on Steve Wynn’s private jet.” It was time to celebrate, but, as Reyes says, “prepare for the future”.
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