September 08, 2006

From Rebel Punk to a Revered Patriarch

By H Natarajan

Mike has a reputation of being a granite-tough taskmaster. He migrated to America at age 22, with $26 and about 28-word knowledge of English language.

An Olympic boxer who represented his native Iran, he was driven to make his son a top tennis player in the country he had adopted. It was a dream that fuelled into a flaming passion even before he was married.

He honed his son’ hand-eye coordination when the child was still in his crib! When the kid was young enough to take the court, Mike made him hit thousands of balls every day and packed him off, at age 14, to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida that has produced world-ranked players by the conveyor belt methods.

But now, when his son had won what John McEnroe had said was one of the greatest matches he had seen, Mike wanted his son to quit. He told ABC News: “I hope this is his last match.” It was not the mentor but the father who was talking. "His retirement is overdue, not because of age. It’s overdue because of illness. His back hurts."

Mike was right. Like the rest of the world, he had seen his son, Andre, endure excruciating pain for close to four hours for a Houdini-like 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 5-7, 7-5 escape against Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis. The match brought memories of Agassi’s five-set winning semi-final classic against James Blake and 39-year-old Jimmy Connors’s charging into the last four on pure adrenalin in 1991 – both at this very venue. It would have been great if Agassi had to go on fantastic winning high against Baghdatis and prevent lasting damage to his bulging disc in his back.

Was some “cosmic force” – as somebody said – helping to destroy anybody in the path of Andre Agassi’s 21st successive US Open? Andrei Pavel had cramped, Baghdatis had cramped and now, in round three, Benjamin Becker was cramping. But there was no fairy-tale ending this time. The 36-year-old Agassi’s life as a tennis player was ebbing away – as painfully evident to him as it was for thousands in the stands and millions watching him on television.

A tsunami of emotion drowned a tearful Agassi. A record crowd of nearly 37,000 rose to a man and gave him a standing ovation. Even young Becker, unsung and unheralded, ranked No.112 and playing just his fifth tournament in his debut year on the pro circuit, was overwhelmed by the poignant moment. Becker, too, joined in the applause. And, as Brad Gilbert, Agassi’s former coach, told newspersons later, the entire locker room stood up and applauded in obeisance as the great man came in for the last time ever as a professional player. It was pure theatre at the Arthur Ashe Stadium. Oh yeah, even the suave Ashe would have joined in the applause from heaven. The applause was truly infectious; even die-hard journalists gave a standing ovation after his farewell press conference. It was obvious that Agassi was special.

So, how will the world remember Agassi as a player? Certainly among the best of all time – a top 10 in most people’s reckoning. Just one hugely significant achievement would merit Agassi a place among the pantheon of the greats – his unmatched feat of winning the four majors on four different surfaces. Four other had won the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, but not on four different surfaces. And when one finds legends like Pete Sampras, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe missing from that exclusive list, Agassi’s achievement is placed in right perspective.

A player with a fantastic return of serve, Agassi exorcised the demons in his mind to win Wimbledon in 1992 – his only title on grass! He beat grass-court maestros Boris Becker in the quarter-finals, John McEnroe in the semis and the bazooka-serving Goran Ivanisevic in the final for the first of his eight Grand Slam titles. Two years later, he became the first unseeded player to win the US Open since Fred Stolle in 1966 and in 1995, he won the Australian Open. Amid the Grand Slam highs, Agassi also powered United States to the Davis Cup triumph in 1995 – he had earlier helped his country win the coveted cup in 1990 and 1992. He also went on to bag the gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

What followed was a nightmarish phase when his health, first marriage and career all hit the rocks together. He spiraled down from the vertiginous No.1 to the depths of despair – a world ranking of 141 in 1997. It’s hereabouts that the new Agassi avatar began to transform – one that the world came to marvel and respect.

It must have been a humbling experience when Agassi retraced his step back in life to the grind of the Challenger events with young hopefuls and struggling tyros. Despite his starry presence, he did not ask for Wild Card. He showed the attitude of a champion who was willing to guts it out and by the end of the season 1998 he was ranked No 6 - the biggest leap into the top 10 made by any player. He continued to make his way up to ended the following year as the oldest No 1 player in history.

And in the French Open final in 1999, he extricated himself from a quicksand two sets to love deficit to beat Andrei Medvedev. He thus became the first man since Rod Laver to win all four majors and the only man to achieve the career Golden Slam – the four majors and the Olympic title. (His wife-to-be, Steffi Graf, had earlier achieved the Golden Slam in a single year).

The victory at Paris was prophecy come true. It was in 1958, a waiter at the Ambassador West Hotel in Chicago told Barry McKay that one day his son would play Davis Cup and also win all four of the Grand Slams. McKay had come to dine at the hotel with fellow American Davis Cuppers when he had that conversation with the waiter, who was not even married at that point of time. The name of the waiter? Mike – Andre Agassi’s father!

Andre Agassi went on to win three more Australian Open for a total of eight Grand Slam title and achieve one of the most sensational comeback success stories in tennis history.

He is the only player to finish an entire season in the top 10 in three different decades since the rankings system was introduced in 1973. Between 1988 and 2005, only twice he failed to finish in the top – in 1993 and 1997. He finished in the year-end top five eight times and in the top 10 on 16 occasions - a record he shares with Jimmy Connors – and at 33 years, 13 days on May 11, 2003, he became the oldest world No 1. He has collected 60 singles titles, including a record 15 Tennis Masters Series titles that ranks him 7th all time on the ATP Tour.

Though America has a rich tennis heritage, few players have served their country in Davis Cup the way John McEnroe and Agassi – he has a 30-6 record – have.

Despite his phenomenal achievements, it would be fair to say that he was not the best player of his era. That honour has to go to his famed rival, compatriot Pete Sampras. But he had greater charisma than Sampras, progressing from a youth icon to a revered senior citizen of pro tennis. The Agassi of the early years was a bohemian. The Las Vegan upset the purists with his neon yellow and purple attire, long hair and earring on his left ear. He cocked a snook at the administration. He called Philippe Chatrier a “bozo” and stayed away from Wimbledon than discard his psychedelic attire for all-white that the venerated championship required. There was also widespread belief that he tanked matches.

He led life in the fast lane – courting singer Barbra Streisand and later actress Brooke Shields, who he married and divorced. But it was his second marriage – to Steffi Graf – that seemed to mature him beyond recognition and earned him the respect of the public and his peers.

Agassi is an extremely wealthy man. He was the fastest to earn $2 million in career earnings, which had swelled to over $31 million by the time he bid adieu. But he made hellva lot more on endorsements, a money-spinner in the Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods category.

But Agassi is also in the Andrew Carnegie mould as a philanthropist, making a significant difference to the lives of the less fortunate strata of the society. He built a school for underprivileged kids in his hometown. In October last, a star-studded line-up of entertainers that included, among others, Streisand, Celine Dion; Duran Duran; Robin Williams helped raise $10.1 million for the Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation – a foundation whose distinguished members of the board includes Sir Elton John. The AACF was just one of the many worthy causes that Agassi is deep involved. Agassi’s involvement is not merely monetary; it transcends to a level of physical and emotional commitment as well. From rebel punk to a revered patriarch, Agassi has come a long way.

When I was in Roland Garros last year, I had a chance to visit, among other places, the ladies changing room – there were no ladies in the room at that point of time, let me make myself clear! It was here that I was told that Steffi Graf always requested for Locker No 19, which was duly conceded. In fact, the administrators honoured the six-time French Open champion by retiring that number as well. In its place, the players are greeted now by a locker that has 18-B on it! Maybe, the US Open authorities should honour Agassi by making the locker he used for the final time in his pro career as his forever – a locker which future generations will look up with awe and respect.

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