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Écrit par Jerome   
25-09-2006

Article d'InsideTennis d'août 2006 : http://www.insidetennis.com/0806_agassi.html

 

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The Extraordinary  Legacy of the Most Beloved Man in  Tennis History

Our nation has relished a parade of great tennis champions who have left storied legacies, but none are as significant as Andre Agassi’s.

The wildly popular 36-year-old changed the game in so many ways - as a punky rebel turned thoughtful sage, as a mindless basher turned considered clinician, as a selfish brat turned generous humanitarian.

The eight-time Grand Slam champion announced that he will call it quits after the U.S. Open and the sport will (sorry Bjorn) miss him more than any other competitor who has ever walked between the white lines.

“He had an aura, a charisma,” Andy Roddick told IT. “He transcends the sport.”

Perhaps more than anything, Agassi made the sport more relevant because as he grew older, he understood tennis’s social significance, and people sensed that he innately knew that what he was doing wasn’t just striking a yellow ball, but problem solving toward a higher purpose. His success in transferring that message to the masses is what his legacy is all about.

“I have a strong belief in what this sport offers a person’s life,” he said. “It’s one-on-one combat. It’s a sport that forces you to problem solve by yourself. It’s a sport that somebody can play their whole life, keeps them healthy. You can get scholarships. It’s a vehicle for education. It’s a great thing for somebody’s life. That message just needs to be sold better.”

Nearly every person who has come in contact with him has an upbeat Agassi tale. Yet, he was remarkably cocky when he was young. For instance, Michael Chang tells a story that when Agassi was staying at his San Diego home during the 12s Super Nationals, he picked up the draw sheet and claimed, “I’m going to play the top seed in the quarters.”
Chang countered, “Quarters? You have to beat me in the third round.”
Agassi replied, “Like I said, I’m going to beat the top seed in the quarters.”

He did beat Chang and eventually win the event, occasionally serving underhanded with a “serve that had such unbelievable side spin that it broke four feet off to the side after it bounced.”

That was Agassi in his youth: brash, risk taking, wild, super talented, insensitive, rock ‘n’ rolling on court behind sidewinder, heat-seeking groundies.
That is not the Agassi who had normally reserved British fans weeping after he lost to Rafael Nadal in his final Wimbledon. Incisive in his self-analysis of his play, calm and sensitive in his opinions on off-court issues, cool and lethal in dispatching opponents, ebullient father of two, benefactor to a charter school and successful charity, Agassi steps away as a hero to millions.

Tennis’s icon extraordinaire is planning on playing four U.S. Open Series events (Los Angeles and likely Washington, Toronto and Cincinnati) and ending his career in New York, where he won twice and last year nearly upset Roger Federer for the title.

But his gimpy back and hip have finally gotten the best of him and at age 36, he can’t imagine pushing himself beyond another few months.

“There’s been a lot of challenges, but it’s been 20, 21 years of incredible memories,” Agassi said. “After the U.S. Open last year, I had a lot of reasons to be motivated to shoot for another successful year, but for many reasons, that hasn’t been the case. It’s been a long road. The last few months, it’s been a long time thinking. I’ve taken stock. I’m [now] out there worried how I’m going to feel coming back from matches. You can’t play like that: two days up, two days down. It gets fatiguing.”

What’s sometimes forgotten about Andre is that he was the trailblazer for the best generation in tennis history, the Fab 4 - Agassi, Sampras, Jim Courier and Chang. In ‘87, he was the first to join the tour full time and now is the last to leave. “We pushed each other and made each other better,” Agassi said. “I showed it was possible to succeed by coming in first. Michael showed it was possible for us to win. Jim brought in a level of physicality and showed what you could do if you were willing to go at it a little harder. He worked hard enough to win the French two years in a row. His physical presence out there was similar to what Lendl had and what I aspire to. Pete showed it’s possible for us to be the best. We’ve helped each other a lot and we’ve interfered with each other, too. I would have won a lot more Slams if it wasn’t for Pete, Jim or Michael.”

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Now this guy who nearly quit in ‘97, who many said was burned out, washed up and shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same breath as the classy, hard-working Sampras, is arguably one of the top 10 players in history.

Agassi was the first of the Fab 4 to win a title, but was the last to win a Slam. Rabbit Chang won the French in ‘89; scrawny, lanky Sampras won the ‘90 U.S. Open over Agassi; and a snarling Courier snared the ‘91 French over his old bunkmate from Bollettieri’s, Andre. It wasn’t until ‘92 that the supposed leader of the new generation won a major in an unlikely locale - green-bladed Wimbledon - usually a graveyard for baseliners, even aggressive ones with a decent first serve. But Agassi had matured to the point that he understood how to use his quick hands, seeing-eye return of serve and newly discovered closer’s instincts. “Everybody knew that he had talent when he was 10,” said Chang. “It was always a matter of time before he honed his talent and got everything in his life in sync.”

But who would have imagined his transformation from the bratty teen who Ivan Lendl called “just a haircut and a forehand” to the most admired man in his sport? Who would have conceived that the kid who once purposely sprayed forehands when he couldn’t find his rhythm would now be considered the game’s top court general by his peers? “Andre is the master strategist, maybe the best of all time,” said Jan-Michael Gambill.

Who could have known that the thoughtless kid who once had an ignominious set of annual awards named after him in Esquire called “The Andres” (which symbolized knuckleheadedness and irresponsibility) would become the well-mannered, deferential man that every corporate bigwig yearns to meet and the philanthropist who annually stages the biggest fund-raiser in sports?

Maybe Agassi himself had an idea but was hiding it behind all that day-glow hair. “I was 15 when I started. There aren’t too many responsible 15-year-olds,” Agassi reflected. “I learned a lot of tough life lessons. But it was also a function of me not taking myself and a lot of things so seriously. I never had an appreciation for the repercussions or the consequences.”

He was outright confrontational early in his career, buzzing a Davis Cup stadium with his vanity plane, calling the Paraguayan Davis Cup team “insects,” mocking a soon-to-be humiliated Connors at the U.S. Open by imitating John McEnroe’s service motion. He spat on a sponsor’s courtside car, dropped F-bombs at quaking linesmen, confronted every official who got in his way, including the revered ITF prez Philippe Chatrier, whom he called a bozo.
But by the time he reached his mid-20s, Agassi had matured and become the players’ spokesman. In the last five years, he’s annually been called on to assess the state of the game as if he were a sitting president.

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Agassi has said that without a total mental and spiritual commitment as he grew older, he may as well have floored it toward retirement in his late 20s. But since his inglorious ‘97 season - when he was forced to play minor league tournaments because he had let his game go to seed and because he was reeling from his failing marriage to Brooke Shields - Agassi has been a consistently committed player.

He physically drove himself to Jordan-esque heights, running the sand dunes behind his Vegas compound, banging weights with his fitness trainer/mentor Gil Reyes and engaging in rapid-fire, focused practices with his coaches Brad Gilbert and then Darren Cahill.

He finally managed to catch the attention of 22-time Grand Slam winner Steffi Graf at the ‘99 French, where the two won their greatest titles. A “who woulda thunk it” marriage soon followed, and for the next seven years, the thoughtful German stood by his side and quietly supported him as he put his body through the ringer time and again in search of even greater glory.

“Without my heart and mind in it, I couldn’t do this,” Agassi confided. “You have to be willing to put yourself through a lot of torture. It’s not easy...especially when you get older.”

After winning his eighth and final Grand Slam title at the ‘03 Aussie, Agassi passed McEnroe in total Slam titles and tied Connors. For a guy who spent five years trying to avoid the label of “underachiever,” to be mentioned in the same breath with those two was extraordinary.

“It feels incredible,” Agassi said. “I don’t ever think I’ll be able to absorb it. Every time I win, it gets sweeter. John and Jimmy offered so much. To be in the group is special.”

Agassi first reached the final of a Grand Slam at the ‘90 French Open (where he lost to Courier), and reached another last year at the U.S. Open - some 15 years apart. He’s also done what no other man has been able to accomplish - win Slam titles on four surfaces.

Sampras unquestionably will go down in history as a better player, having won their rivalry (beating him all four times at the U.S. Open, including three finals), but you can put Agassi right up with the rest of the U.S. elite.

Gilbert asserts that Agassi has surpassed Connors in stature. “Some guys won more Slams [five did and four are tied with Agassi at eight], but three of the four of those used to be on grass. It’s more significant that he won on different surfaces.”

In the 13 years since be broke out at the ‘92 Wimbledon, Agassi has won another seven Slams, reached four other Slam finals, won 15 prestigious Tennis Masters Series crowns (the most ever) and was a Davis Cup hero.

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Moreover, as Federer noted, Andre revolutionized the game, especially with his blazing return of serve. Agassi himself recalled that “when I first came on to the scene, I was the first person to hit the ball big off both wings. If I was in position to take the ball early off both sides, [I would] give it a good ride. I would love to feel like I was part of that evolution of the game, where I helped those around me [to] get better.”

It’s almost impossible to find a guy in the locker room who doesn’t like him, and he’s revered by his fellow Americans, especially the younger generation.
“He’s an amazing person,” Roddick said. “He’s won everything on court, but off court is where he’s done so much more. When I was only 17, Andre took time to call me, to give me advice, to hit with me. Once after we played in Houston, he said, let’s go to Boca Raton [where Roddick lives] and practice for 5 or 6 days. I was like, ‘Wow.’”

James Blake, who lost a classic to Agassi at last year’s U.S. Open, asserted that Andre’s “a true gentleman, one of the friendliest in the locker room. That’s impressive, because you don’t need to do that - you’re a legend. He’s got everything you can dream of, but he still knows how to treat people.”

Agassi, who didn’t have that much formal education, isn’t quite certain what his future will be like, but it’s sure to include tireless work for his charity and the charter school he founded in Vegas. When he speaks about the school, he lights up as if he’s talking about a potential rematch of his ‘02 U.S. Open final with Pete.

“I’ve spent 20 years waking up saying, ‘what do I have to do today?’ Now I’m going to spend the rest of my life waking up and saying, ‘what do I want my life to look like?’ It’s going to be a quest and a journey that I’ll take on with every bit as much passion. Being bored is not an option. Being bored is bad for me - and for my wife...But I’ve spent the last 13 years building my foundation. We’ve raised $75 million for inner-city children...The only way to make a difference in a child’s life is to help him or her learn how to make better decisions. So it led to education. We are the only school deemed exemplary [and are] nationally recognized for our success...We want this school to be a blueprint for our whole country.”

While it’s hard to see Andre contributing to the grind on tour as a frequent TV commentator or coach, Agassi sees himself having some as of yet undefined role.

“It’s hard just to close a book [on tennis] and walk away,” he said. “I hope it takes on a whole new dynamic.”

Agassi has had nothing short of a miraculous career, which is why his winning a 9th Grand Slam cannot be totally discounted. In September, when he plays the U.S. Open, Andre will be the last member of his storied generation to make a stand at a Slam. He’ll be greeted like a war hero.

“It will be bittersweet,” said Roddick. “It’s great for the fans, but it will be sad to see him go. He’s a special guy.”

Even though he has defined the tournaments he’ll play this summer, Agassi says he will not do a farewell tour. While he’s a sentimental sort (he cried after walking off Wimbledon’s Centre Court), he still has some business left to tend to on court. He promises he will not lie down quietly, but instead will go for every ball.

“There’s still a lot of fight left in me,” said the Vegas warrior, the most beloved figure in tennis history.

 

 
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