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Écrit par Jerome   
22-09-2006

Article de Joel Drucker publié dans Deuce Magazine :


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As statesman, champion, activist and athlete, Andre Agassi knows that impact is everything. By Joel Drucker First published in DEUCE Magazine

The eyes of Andre Agassi tell everything. Has there ever been a set of eyes in tennis history so vividly expressive, so able to take in what’s in front of him so openly? Watch Agassi answer a question. Pleased or vexed, he makes eye contact. Watch Agassi meet someone he’s never met, or greet a familiar face, and see how he reaches forward politely and emphatically. Watch Agassi gaze at a server, run down a forehand, line up a backhand; unquestionably these are trained eyes, dialed-in sharply enough to hit the ball firmly, but soft enough to recover for the next ball.

Watch Agassi’s eyes when he smells victory, when he’s thoroughly in control of a point and time seems to stop as he sets up to run an opponent from corner to corner. And, yes, watch Agassi’s eyes as he suffers, as the match slips out of his hands. According to Agassi, “Tennis lets people see you at your worst and your best. There’s nowhere to hide. It’s a real opportunity for people to see you at your most vulnerable, which can also be your best time.”

Early in his career, Agassi’s remarkable shotmaking skills appeared inhuman. Now, at this stage of his career, his eyes refusing to betray him in victory or defeat, he is most of all appealing because he has emerged as so strikingly human.

Over the last 20 years, Agassi’s eyes have taken in so much. Through his deeds on and off the court, he has reached people in ways rare not just for a tennis star, but also for an athlete, or, for that matter, a citizen. As Andy Roddick says, “Andre’s probably the biggest crossover star tennis has ever had.”

Less than a week after turning 35, Agassi is relaxing in his hotel room during Masters Series Rome. As happens at every event Agassi plays, he’s got a full plate of activities off the court too, ranging from an exhibition just outside the Vatican to interviews and assorted photo opportunities – not to mention the usual gaggle of fans who’ll crowd his practice court, kindly smother him after matches and trail him to his car. “There are enormous demands on his time, but I haven’t seen anyone handle it better,” says his trainer and close friend, Gil Reyes.

For all the jokes about how growing up in a show-biz town like Las Vegas made Agassi a natural entertainer, the truth is he deeply knows how to captivate an audience. In Rome, even after his semifinal loss, Agassi continued his tradition of bowing and blowing kisses to the crowd. He can’t even remember when it started, but his rationale for this post-match ritual is crystal-clear. “It’s an expression of appreciation,” he says. “It started when I realized how much people support me. I saw that there are times in life when feelings motivate actions. And then are times when actions motivate feelings. When you force yourself to do something, you remind yourself why something is important to do. When I come out here and play in the arena, I’m overwhelmed with the support and the way that I’ve been embraced over the last half of my career.”

Agassi’s willingness to reciprocate the public’s appreciation only increases his popularity. Of Iranian ancestry, raised in Las Vegas, fine-tuned in Florida, married to a German, he’s increasingly comfortable as a citizen of the world. From the four corners of the court, to each corner of the globe, his reach creates a series of circles that make a nonstop impact – Agassi as statesman, champion, activist and, first and last, athlete. He wears each hat comfortably, aware of when it’s time to talk, to listen, to take action and get down to his life’s work of hitting tennis balls.

It wasn’t always that way. Most children spend their youth joyfully and even carelessly in search of purpose. Agassi’s vocation was handed to him in the crib. The phenomenal skill he honed was both blessing and curse. The upside was that by age 18 he was ranked three in the world and a millionaire. The downside was that the trio of narrow career path, high expectations and relentless exposure created a stress level most young men rarely face in front of so many. Pondering this in Rome, Agassi says, “There were a lot of years spent resenting everything, from being away from home, to the resentment of traveling, to the resentment of growing up in the spotlight, making mistakes in the public eye and having to learn to live with them.”

These days, Agassi’s time is as precisely calibrated as his down-the-line backhand. His lifelong best friend and manager, Perry Rogers, manages Agassi’s business affairs. His coach, Darren Cahill, is a low-key Aussie with one of the sport’s keenest minds. For 15 years, Reyes has kept Agassi’s body fit. Just prior to the ’05 season, Agassi lost 10 pounds, proudly showing off his newly-tapered legs. And who better than a wife like Stephanie Graf would empathize with the physical, mental and emotional struggles of a hungry tennis champion? “This is what I do,” says Agassi, “As I get older, I enjoy that I continue to ask something from myself every time I go out on the court.”


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Andre Agassi played his first tournament in three months at Queen's last week. August 2004. The sun is just starting to sink. It’s a balmy Saturday at the Lindner Family Tennis Center in Cincinnati, site of the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters. Having just entered the stadium for a practice session, Agassi reaches for a racquet and shuffles towards the baseline. On-court, Agassi’s familiar pigeon-toed walk morphs into exquisite posture. He and Cahill loft a few groundstrokes. Two days hence, Agassi will play his first-round match on this court in front of 10,000 people and an international TV audience. Right now there are less than 20 people in the stands. “But there’s always a buzz around Andre, always people knowing what he’s up to,” says Cincinnati tournament director Bruce Flory. Fans begin trickling into the stadium.

“It used to be Andre’s practices were a bit like a circus,” says ESPN-NBC-CBS commentator Mary Carillo. “It was a show. Now he’s like Jimmy Connors. He’s got that attitude that he’s here for an hour to conduct business.”

The balls start to fly faster. There is no better forehand-backhand combination in tennis history than Agassi’s. It’s electrifying to see how well he makes contact on every ball he strikes. His brown eyes bear in on each ball. Agassi’s recovery from shot to shot is also brilliant. Cahill stands inside the baseline to hit a few serves. Agassi clocks them down the line, one after another. The workout concludes. “Just 12 minutes hitting with Andre can get anyone huffing and puffing,” says U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe. As he walks off the court, Agassi signs his name on balls, magazines, hats, T-shirts.

His intensity is evident. Headed into Cincinnati, Agassi had yet to win a tournament all year. Eight days later, after beating a trio of former World No. 1s - Carlos Moya, Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt - on consecutive days, Agassi had earned his 59th career title (and record 17th ATP Masters Series crown). “Not only does he play great tennis,” says Flory, “but he’s popular with everybody, from the kids to the little old ladies who have crushes on him. He’s the marquee match no matter who he plays or when he’s on the schedule.”

Certainly endurance and performance have been the most vital reasons for Agassi’s veneration. But as he’s aged, he’s also been keenly aware that while tennis is a solitary sport, the tour is also a community; even, in its quirky way, a family. Agassi recalls that when he first surfaced on the tour, he was not treated particularly kindly by the great Americans of that era, Connors and John McEnroe (though he and McEnroe have since become quite chummy). Countering that, he’s taken a different path. Five years ago, when the 17-year-old Roddick was a hitting partner for the U.S. Davis Cup team, Agassi gleefully pounded ball after ball at Roddick to see if the youngster indeed had the goods. In short order, the two formed a cross-generational tie more endemic to the great Aussies of old than the more solitary Americans.

When Agassi returned to Davis Cup this year, he wanted to make sure he joined the team not as a superstar, but as a colleague, and insisted he call each team member to see if they’d accept him on the team. Says McEnroe, “Andre doesn’t do anything without a lot of thinking, whether it’s coming back to Davis Cup or deciding what kind of wine we should have with our team dinner. You can see how everything he does makes him a team guy.” Says Roddick, “I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor on and off the court. He’s been a sounding board for me and I’ve learned from watching him. I’m very thankful that he almost volunteered to take that role with me and took me under his wing when I was 17.”

Nowhere is Agassi’s sense of family more powerfully expressed than under his own roof. The world witnessed this last July. Agassi had never been to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island. Five years after his last Grand Slam match, he will take his own place in the pantheon of tennis greats. But on this Sunday afternoon, Agassi was delivering a speech to announce his wife’s induction.
“I began several years ago on the small chalkboard sitting in our kitchen, a tradition that I've carried on every night,” said Agassi. “At the end of each day I have picked up the chalk and tried to express the many things you mean to me… You have always been about the action not about the words. You have never defined yourself by what you have achieved, rather you have achieved by how you define yourself. And even now, it has taken my breath away to see how you've quietly laid down your racquet to pursue love and motherhood with the same zeal and high standards you have always demanded of yourself.” The stoic Graf was in tears. She wasn’t alone.

Where did Agassi’s sensitivity come from? How could it emerge from a man engaged in a fiercely lonely, combative sport? The key, perhaps, is to understand the sensibilities of a young boy who relished the simple act of hitting a tennis ball much more than he savored the process of overturning his opponents (Connors) or imposing his superiority over them (McEnroe). Agassi was a lover long before he became a fighter. At 14, eager to bring Rogers to the Bollettieri Academy to play a tournament, Agassi begged that his buddy be given a wild card and then sold dozens of his tennis clothes to cover Rogers’ travel costs.

Back in Rome, Agassi ponders how he transformed himself. “For many years with me it was about how good you could hit your best shots,” he says. “Now I’ve come to use my ability to choose my shots, to have the discipline and structure my game, shot after shot, where every point is relevant to the next. What wins matches is how you rein it in. And my instinct has always been to let it go.”

Of course it was Agassi’s penchant for cutting loose that rapidly made him a pop culture icon. It’s easy to forget, but when Agassi turned pro in 1986, the American tennis boom of the ‘70s and early ‘80s was on its last legs. Connors and McEnroe were nearing their twilights. As the game’s global reach spread, tournament directors, sponsors, fans and TV executives worried if there was a great American on the horizon. A week before he turned pro, Agassi contacted an old friend he’d known as a junior, Ian Hamilton, the head of Nike’s tennis division. For $25,000, Hamilton signed Agassi to a contract, suggesting he wear a pair of denim shorts McEnroe had rejected. Says Hamilton, “Andre became the Pied Piper for tennis because he was willing to take risks and make a statement.”

Most of all, Agassi’s racquet did the talking. Has there ever been a player who made a splash at all four Grand Slams the way Agassi did? Barely 18, he grunted his way to the semis of Roland Garros. Later that summer, he straight-setted Connors in the US Open quarterfinals, a match that also featured Agassi imitating (in a respectful way) McEnroe’s side-to-the-net service motion. Well into his 20s, Agassi skipped the Australian Open – and then won it the first time he played it.

The oddest Agassi Slam, though, was Wimbledon, a tournament he declined to play for three straight years (’88-’90). These were the years when Agassi’s colorful wardrobe often generated more headlines than his tennis. Naturally, once he decided to show up at the All-England Lawn Tennis Club, he entered Centre Court in an all-white warmup suit. Many believed his baseline game was ill-equipped for the slick grass. Perversely, in 1992, having lost three Grand Slam finals, Agassi shocked the world and earned his first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon. Luke Jensen was Agassi’s practice partner during that run, and says he’ll never forget two distinct examples of Agassi’s eyes telling the story. The morning of the final, Jensen simulated the lefthanded serve of Agassi’s opponent, Goran Ivanisevic, standing well inside the baseline to blast one delivery after another on a fast grass court. Says Jensen, “Andre just swept up one after another, boom, boom, boom.” That evening, Jensen dashed to the locker to congratulate Agassi. “That trophy,” says Jensen, “was like a baby in his hands.” The lover had proven he could fight. It wasn’t the last time he’d have to make that point.

Agassi has unquestionably been the biggest box-office star in tennis history. Television programmers adjust their schedules for his matches. Besides his massive apparel agreement with Nike and racquet contract with Head/Penn, Agassi has over the course of his career endorsed everything from financial service firms to cameras, cars, watches and more. Tournament directors know his entry dramatically accelerates ticket sales, sponsor agreements and community interest in tennis. “One word sums up what he delivers,” says Barry MacKay, founder and former tournament director of the SAP Open in San Jose. “Credibility.”

 


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If off the court Agassi was always solid gold, on the court he has devoted considerable time to reconciling expectation with performance. Throughout the first half of his career, even as he earned three Slam titles, Agassi’s devotion fluctuated. He’d start a year devoted and end it bored. In 1997, playing but one Slam, he finished the year ranked 122 in the world. “At that stage,” says Agassi, “the choice was either to quit or change. There was something inside of me that felt I had something more to give. I came to embrace the challenge, and found a whole new appreciation for what tennis was. That’s when I started choosing to play the game for myself.”

Since then, his commitment has been unwavering. Talking about Agassi during the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships in Houston this past April, Reyes notes that Agassi in large part resembles his hometown. “Andre reflects the spirit of the city and the vision, courage, perseverance and faith that it takes for a city like Vegas to grow,” says Reyes. “They both take their share of beatings and keep coming up big.”

Looking at Houston’s clay court, Reyes is reminded of another clay court event, one where Agassi showed so much promise and endured so much frustration: Roland Garros. The dazzle of that ’88 semi run turned sour when Agassi was upset in the ’90 and ’91 finals. Only once since then had Agassi reached the semis. Then, in 1999, he considered pulling out of the tournament, but was talked back into it by his coach, Brad Gilbert. “Roland Garros,” says Reyes, pausing. “Roland Garros was a dragon. We had tasted defeat there, bitter defeat, painful defeat, tearful defeat. And then Andre finally went head first into the teeth of the dragon and conquered it.”

Coming from two sets to love down in the final versus Andrei Medvedev, Agassi became the fifth man in tennis history to have won singles titles at all four Slams. In the process, he set a new tone for his career. Out with that old Canon camera tagline, “Image is Everything.” In with substance. During that same time, Agassi commenced his romance with Graf, who had earned her own emotionally-pleasing triumph in Paris the day before Agassi’s. Since then, he’s won four more Grand Slam titles.

Courier, the man who won that ’91 French Open final, shares a long history with Agassi. The two were roommates at Bollettieri’s. Courier is one of many who laughingly call Agassi “The King,” a reference to his status even in early adolescence as the headliner among alleged equals. For a time, the competitive aspects of tennis kept Agassi and Courier apart. But as the two neared 30, past tensions melted, giving way to heartfelt mutual respect. In Houston this past April, they even played doubles together. “Very few people in the game have grown as much as Andre,” says Courier. “I get a lot of pride from seeing where he started and where he is today. You see how he micromanages his time on changeovers. The rest of his life just grows from that.”

What emerges from Agassi’s career is the tale of a boy who became a man in a fishbowl, a top-tier athlete who by dint of playing an individual sport savored the right to live strictly on his terms. Early in his teens, miffed at Bollettieri’s dogmatic approach, he asked the ex-Marine turned coach a question: “Ever try listening?” Initially taken aback by Agassi’s assertion, Bollettieri came to appreciate Agassi’s individualism. “Tennis was the kind of sport that gave someone like Andre the chance to really come out and do something special,” says Bollettieri. “What was even more remarkable was how dedicated he became. By taking care of Andre Agassi, he was able to take care of everything else.”

And yet, for all the time Agassi and so many have spent pondering his tennis focus past, present and future, there is one area off-court where his vision has been consistently 20/20. As children, he and Rogers often discussed what defined success. Says Rogers, “The answer was that success is about the impact you can have on other people’s lives.” As Rogers went to law school, as Agassi’s wealth soared, the two brainstormed an approach. In November 1993, the two hired someone to run the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation. A month later, Agassi had wrist surgery, the doctor speculating that Agassi might never play tennis again. Concurrently, Agassi’s handlers at sports marketing firm IMG advised him not to commence his charity efforts and focus strictly on his tennis. Agassi differed then and now. “My real regret,” he says, “is that I didn’t start sooner. I thought there was enough of my career left where I could not only raise money but bring awareness to various issues, and do so when I had the platform.”

In 1997, the doors opened at the Andre Agassi Boys & Girls Club. Located in one of Las Vegas’ poorest neighborhoods, it’s a 25,000-square foot facility with more than 2,000 members. Other efforts followed, including Agassi’s “Grand Slam for Children,” a fundraising event that’s featured the likes of Robin Williams, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Jay Leno – and raised more than $42 million to benefit underprivileged, abused or at-risk children in the Las Vegas community.

But that wasn’t enough. “It occurred to me that the greatest way to address a child’s concerns isn’t to stick band-aids on things,” says Agassi. “I wanted to get ahead of the curve, and teach them how to make the right decisions.” He and Rogers decided to create a school, and spent the better part of half a decade bringing their vision to life. The Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, a Las Vegas charter school for at-risk children, opened in August 2001. When in Las Vegas, Agassi regularly visits “Agassi Prep.” The day after the U.S. Davis Cup team lost its first-round match in Davis Cup this past March, Agassi zoomed up to the Nevada state capital, Carson City, to address the legislature on education. Says Courier, “Arthur Ashe is at the peak as far as someone transcending the game to make a difference in the world. I think Andre is climbing up to join him on that Mount Rushmore.”

Naturally, Agassi feels that seeing is the best form of believing. “You must see the school,” he insists. “Only if you see what those children are doing can you tell what’s really happening there.” Dare Agassi believe in anything else than the potential of a fellow Las Vegan? After all, his vision was honed in a Las Vegas crib. From the cradle onwards, Andre Agassi refuses to take his eyes off the ball.

 

 
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