Flashback: Andre Agassi, 20 Years On...
New York, U.S.A.
by James Buddell|
Fresh off a four-hour flight from Las Vegas to Santa Barbara, Andre Agassi is seated in the clinic of Dr. Richard Scheinberg contemplating the end of his career. Gil Reyes, his trainer, is pensive too.
“I still remember the day,” says Agassi. “20th December 1993.”
Seven years into his pro career, 23-year-old Agassi has played a tour event Down Under twice. The goal of competing at the Australian Open for the first time, the following month, is over for another season. This time, it’s tendinitis in his right wrist.
“I thought my injury could be career threatening,” says Agassi. Reyes keeps his thoughts to himself at the Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital. “Privately, I was worried. Would he resume his career? It was 50/50, yes or no.
“Everything was done to avoid it, but he realised he had to give in to it. After he had won Wimbledon [in 1992], Andre realised it was mentally time to step up. But physically the wear and tear of hitting thousands of tennis balls was damaging the wrist.”
"I was scared for him"
Surgery is his only option. Dr. Scheinberg, an orthopedic surgeon, rebuilt 38-year-old Jimmy Connors’ left wrist three years earlier. Now it’s Agassi’s turn.
The 75-minute operation reveals greater problems. A mass of scar tissue is removed and “structural changes to the sheath that encases the tendons were made”, says Agassi. The injury has affected Agassi’s trademark shot — his forehand, which he executes by swinging his body to disguise the direction — over the past six months.
“Then, there were concerns of whether he would be able to return,” says Reyes. “Whether he would struggle and come through the physical therapy.”
Unable to hit balls, Agassi dedicates himself to get super fit. “Nothing really happens, then, once you are healthy you improve on a daily basis,” says Agassi.
The test came at Scottsdale, two months later. Agassi would confess in his 2009 autobiography, OPEN, that, at the time, “I have a recurring nightmare about being in the middle of a match and my hand falling off.”
Reyes remembers, “I was scared for him. We did everything to get him back. Although he won the title, it startled us into the realisation that he might never be the same.
“We became students of the game and tried to figure out remedies. He built up his strength and that year weighed in at 175lbs. He taught me what he needed on court. It was not about jogging around a track, but that tennis was a sport of stops and starts. He taught me that the first three steps are the most important.
“Then, the switches started flipping on.”
Enter Brad Gilbert.
At Café Porte Chervo, Gilbert has ordered pasta, chicken and mozzarella cheese. Yet he is talking “meat and potatoes.”
Agassi and his agent, Perry Rogers, listen intently at a table of the Italian restaurant on Fisher Island, near Miami Beach.
“Andre destroyed me [6-1, 6-2] in the Scottsdale quarter-finals,” remembers Gilbert, who won four of his eight matches against Agassi. “Now, I was breaking down his game [and] telling him where he was going wrong.
"Like a Boa constrictor, you squeeze them when they breathe out"
“I tried to get Andre to think about ‘meat and potatoes’, the basics. He always tried to beat opponents 1 & 0 and 1 & 1, but if he didn’t he would be upset. His pursuit of perfection was all consuming. I told him it was all right to win 6-4, 6-4.
“He respected my honesty.”
For Agassi, the meeting in March 1994 was a major turning point.
“When I started to work with Brad in Key Biscayne, I started on a learning curve,” recalls Agassi. “He made me think for myself. I had had hard losses, but I needed to remember how to win [and] win those close matches. There were matches when I converted one of 14 break points and lost 7-5, 7-6, when I should have won 6-2, 6-3.
“Looking back, some of my best wins came when I was in third gear. I realised that I didn’t have to play better than I had to. If you meet your opponent where you are, you can be a half click ahead and you will beat them.
“Like a Boa constrictor, you squeeze them when they breathe out.”
Twenty years on, Gilbert reveals, “My wife always said that when she watched me play I always ground out wins. But watching Andre play was easy. It was too difficult for him not to perform well week-in, week-out.
“I helped him to be simple. His skill level was so much more than mine. I felt he could attack his opponents. At the time he did not think a lot about tactics and strategy. He would try to crush you.
“What amazed me was he had a 100 per cent total recall of points he had made. More than any player I have ever met. He challenged me. It amazed me, as he recalled every point and shot. Once I knew that, I knew he could apply himself to the sport and improve.”
Reyes recalls, “The impact Brad had was amazing. He knew his role and knew it so well. Brad was not trying to get Andre to play his tennis. Brad instilled hard work, insisting, ‘We want road blocks in our way.’”
Four weeks prior to the US Open, memories of surgery had vanished. In an ESPN interview with Vitas Gerulaitis, Agassi was buzzing. “I really want to get my feet moving. I want to have that enthusiasm that enables me to play my best tennis. I also want to execute my shots and for a year now, I don’t feel that guys have been on their heels when I wind up for my forehand and baseline shots. I want to start punishing the ball and make them feel some pressure.”
Agassi and Gilbert both cite a third-round victory over David Wheaton at the 1994 Players LTD. International Canadian Open in Toronto, as a pivotal match. By saving two match points in a dramatic third-set tie-break, it transformed his fortunes.
"Clarity on court is so important as a tennis player."
Gilbert recalls, “When you look back, you pick out key matches in your career and this win was pivotal for Andre. Afterwards I told him, ‘Good things are coming. You found a way to win and you’re still in the draw. You gave yourself an opponent for tomorrow.’ There was a time, when he would have lost and simply left the tournament, thinking nothing more of it.”
“With Brad I really started to learn how to contain my game, although stubbornly,” says Agassi. “Winning a close match, as I did in Toronto, relieves pressure. If I ran into a tough situation again, I knew I could execute.
“Getting through the match, I realised that I did not have to stress, as I had so much to offer. It gave me a feeling of a sense of confidence. It helped me to trust myself. I started to understand what Brad meant.
“Clarity on court is so important as a tennis player.”
Agassi went on to lift the trophy, the 21st of his career. It is his first title with Gilbert, just four weeks before the start of THE OPEN.
Coming out of Toronto, Agassi was ready.
“Andre was never over confident,” says Reyes. “But he was ready. Ready for that moment, the surgery had been harnessed.”
It’s Labor Day — 5 September 1994.
His performance timeline at the US Open reads: 1986-first round; 1987-first round; 1988-semi-finals; 1989-semi-finals; 1990-finalist; 1991-first round; 1992-quarter-finals; 1993-first round. Unseeded at Flushing Meadows for the first time since 1987, Agassi has worked his way into the draw by casting aside Robert Eriksson, Guy Forget and Wayne Ferreira.
New Yorkers have turned out in force for a marquee fourth round match-up on Louis Armstrong Stadium. Agassi versus Michael Chang, an all-American clash broadcast nationally on CBS.
“I was worried about Chang in the round of 16, because he had a knack of playing great when he wanted it,” remembers Agassi. “If he didn’t, his level would drop off.”
Today, in the mid-afternoon sun, Chang is driven. Andre is all smiles, killing the ball. Chang is punching holes in his opponent’s game. They are both in it for the long haul. The pair’s ninth meeting (Agassi 5-3) goes the distance.
At 1-1, 0/30, in the decider, Chang is in trouble. Agassi senses blood.
Chang slices a serve out wide to Agassi’s forehand, which is struck back mid-court. Chang hits a forehand into space, into the corner, which Agassi scrambles back four feet behind the baseline. Chang’s half volley is spinning into the deuce-side doubles alley. Agassi anticipates well, bending down to fire a forehand around the net post to win the point for 0/40.
In the next game, Agassi is serving at 40/30 for a 3-1 lead. It’s Chang’s turn to run into the deuce alley. This time, Agassi’s wrists are firm and he blocks a volley. It’s the shot that breaks the camel’s back. Chang’s resistance ends.
Agassi, who had a 6-11 record in fifth sets coming into the match, immediately realises the enormity of the 6-1, 6-7(3), 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 victory. Post-match, Agassi commented, “This is the best I have ever hit the tennis ball, absolutely. This is the culmination of a lot of things. I've hit the ball pretty good before, but it wasn't balanced with that competitive spirit, that focused concentration.”
"I knew I had a chance..."
There had been enormous pressure coming into the Open.
Says Reyes, “Doing well at the US Open always mattered so much to Andre.
“He wanted it to go well. It was not a pressure you hate. It was the pressure you feel when you love something so much. The kind of pressure you feel when your family comes over. You want everything to go well. He always used to say he wanted ‘people to be glad when they come to see me play’. That pressure is a pleasure.”
But, as Gilbert recalls, “The Chang win was the determining factor of the event. It was a tough match. Andre played very well and fed off the crowd. After that we had a good feeling about the tournament.”
Agassi went on to win a ‘grudge’ match against Thomas Muster — avenging his five-set loss in the Roland Garros second round, four months earlier — and overcame his pre-match jitters to beat Todd Martin in four sets in the semi-finals. Agassi admits, “I knew I could take care of Muster, but Todd was a little scary as he could take his game to another level. By the semi-finals, I knew I had a chance as I could see Stich and Karel Novacek in the other half.”
Less than 24 hours after beating Martin, on 11 September, Agassi walked out onto court to face Michael Stich in front of 21,063 fans. Frank Shields, the grandfather of Agassi’s then girlfriend, Brooke Shields, who watched from the players’ box, had been the first unseeded player to reach the US Championships final in 1930. Gilbert, sporting a black cap and denim jacket, was quietly confident. He could not see how Stich could win.
“This is not possible,” says Gilbert. “I had beaten Stich in 1992 [in five sets], so I could not see that there was any chance that Andre could lose. Stich was a great opponent. The key was not to game plan for three sets, Andre just needed to go out and win.
“He did not have any nerves. He was ready for the journey and tried not think what round he was. Andre executed the game plan to win [6-1, 7-6(5), 7-5].”
Reunited in the locker room, Agassi and Gilbert both realised it was time to take his game to another level. Says Gilbert, “The title was something to savour. You can get too satisfied, but we both realised more was to come.”
The following day, Agassi returned to the Top 10 for the first time in 18 months — at No. 9 in the IBM ATP Tour Rankings [now named Emirates ATP Rankings]. Agassi remembers, “I never thought about the short period between my wrist surgery and winning the US Open title. I just remember that I immediately got to work, unbelievably hard, with Gil for the European swing.” The journey continued.