Dispatches: Agassi

Being a fan of Andre Agassi is difficult – there’s too much competition.  He is the most sentimentally revered figure in the history of professional tennis, which can make appreciating him feel like a form of conformity.  For this reason, with the start of the U.S. Open, Agassi’s declared last tournament, many tennis enthusiasts prefer to moan about the press banquet of schmaltz being spread out before us.  But, as with music fans who denounce overly popular musicians to demonstrate their independence, those who allow NBC’s endless ‘inspirational’ montages to dictate their feelings are merely indulging in juvenile contrarianism.  Having trouble admiring what is too popular is a common youthful problem, but not the one I face here.  Quite the opposite: with nostalgic tributes to Agassi thicker on the ground than confetti, many composed by people who have actually met the man, what can I add?

Maybe I can start by critiquing some of the broad brushstrokes used to paint the man’s narrative arc.  Today’s New York Times contains an illustration of Agassi bisected into two halves: on the left, his youthful bleach-blond maned incarnation; on the right, his current “wizened veteran” visage.  As a visual metaphor it sums up the common conception of Agassi’s career: after a wasted youth spent caring too much about image, Agassi dropped to number 141 in the rankings, then was reborn having learned important life lessons and returned to number one.  Simple, but mostly wrong.  In truth, Agassi’s career has been about comebacks from the very beginning.

Agassi was blessed with ball-striking talent so clean and remarkable that at age four he rallied with Jimmy Connors for a crowd at Caesar’s Palace in his hometown of Las Vegas.  Growing up, he was seen in no uncertain terms as a prodigy who would go on to dominate tennis.  And he duly burned up the men’s tour as a teenager, and in 1990 he reached the finals of two Grand Slam tournaments as a heavy favorite.  He lost both (although we later came to realize that losing to a then-unknown Pete Sampras wasn’t as inexplicable as it then seemed), then reached the French Open final in 1991 again as the favorite, and lost again.  What happened? 

Agassi’s early years were marked by a desire and an ability to hit the ball harder off both forehand and backhand sides than was generally considered wise.  He possessed, however, a freakish consistency in his ability to strike the ball early (making ‘hit it on the rise’ into a shibboleth of the era) and accurately.  First chance he got, he simply blasted you off the court.  Agassi was able to maintain the “flow state” — those ineffable, perfect stretches — much more of the time than others, with less practice and less preparation.  He had a sort of genius.

Yet his talent came with a price.  The unconscious ability to unload on the ball was prone, as all such talents are, to disappear during moments of tension.  This happened to him quite often early in his career; when faced with matches he was favored in, and thus pressured by, he often lost them.  It was as if the punishment for how easily the strokes came to him was a lack of strategies to win (you can see this today with Marat Safin).  The midsection of his career then, was marked by fallow periods followed by amazing victories out of nowhere.  He won the 1992 Wimbledon after playing indifferently for months, with little practice, on his worst surface.  Again he disappeared, only to resurface with a poor ranking and become the only player to win the U.S. Open without a seeding in 1994. 

At this stage, Agassi employed the crafty former veteran, Brad Gilbert, whose professional success despite a near vacuum of talent was the precise reversal of Agassi’s underachievement.  Together, Gilbert and Agassi were able to concoct strategies of point construction that could overcome Agassi’s early reliance on irruptions of brilliance.  Specifically, the new plan was to become fitter than any man on tour, and to punish opponents by jerking them from side to side, purposely not making the killing stroke until a plain positional adavantage was achieved.  This plan wore opponents out, induced unforced errors (which are the easiest way to win points), and, most importantly, freed Agassi from reliance on the “flow state.”   He began to dominate, beating Sampras at the Australian Open to begin 1995, and in doing so generated a hybrid offensive-defensive model for success followed to this day.

Agassi went on to dominate 1995 until the U.S. Open final against Pete Sampras, which he entered having won 27 straight matches.  Sampras, however, had never needed to play the defensive tactics Agassi had developed, because Sampras possessed a serve that is probably the single most devastating weapon in tennis history.  (The shorter Agassi, by contrast, has never had the psychological luxury of a great serve.)  In addition, Sampras never showed vulnerability on big stages the way Agassi did.  He mercilessly served Agassi off the court that day, sending him into a tailspin from which Agassi took two years to recover.

Now, the rivalry between Sampras and Agassi was extremely close.  Every time they met in Grand Slams on a slower surface (Roland Garros, Australia), Agassi won.  Of their sixteen tournament finals, Agassi won seven, Pete nine.  Unfortunately, everytime they met in the two faster Slams, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, Sampras won.  These are the most prestigious tournaments in tennis.  After 1995, Agassi was faced with the realization that all his childhood genius combined with all his adulthood grinding was still not good enough to defeat Sampras at the events most important to him.  There was also the nagging sense that he cared too much in the big moments to be a true killer.

Don’t shut down on a player.  Agassi lost some interest, then made the mother of all comebacks, from 141 in 1998 to winning the French Open in 1999.  This gave him the historic full collection of Grand Slams on three surfaces, an achievement Sampras couldn’t match (nor Federer, as yet).  And thus began a run of dominance at an age that defied belief, and a consistency he had never before showed.  Agassi was ranked number one as recently as June 2003, and just last year, of course, played Federer pretty darn tough in the U.S. Open final, at age 35.

I have spent some time recounting the many comebacks of Agassi’s career, to give some of the flavor of his tenure in tennis.  Rather than a dominant number one, he has always seemed to be an ephemeral victor, an paradoxical combination of all-time legend with underdog.  He has revived his passion for the intense physical work of playing professional tennis after disappointments of many kinds.  Uniquely among top players, who rise to the top, are displaced, and then fade away, Agassi was able to scale the heights repeatedly, never becoming fatally disengaged by heartbreaking losses.  This was partly because of his amazing native facility for pugilistic hitting, much more due to his tenacious desire to play.

Like tennis’ Gatsby, Agassi was an extremely sensitive arriviste; of Armenian-Iranian origins, Agassi’s father had boxed for Iran before moving to Las Vegas to pursue Amercian social mobility.  His drilling of Agassi as a toddler may have programmed Agassi’s later perfection in muscle memory.  Agassi’s astonishingly bad, Merry Go Round fashion sense as a youngster was a sign of his contempt for those who would attempt to exclude him because of his lack of gentility.  Likewise his denunciations of Wimbledon’s dress code and anything else that seemed insufficiently egalitarian to the teenage Agassi. 

After such an assault on a perceived establishment, Agassi’s transformation into the offical Elder Statesman of tennis sometimes surprises.  But the intelligence he always showed has remained constant.  He has an uncanny ability to remember crucial details, and he is probably the most accurate tennis analyst alive.  (Here’s Agassi after playing Federer; here after playing Nadal.)  He is compassionate towards others as only a career underdog could be: he is by far the world’s most philanthropic athlete.  His career has demonstrated that redemption does not come from winning, but from working and giving (as New Agey as that, and Agassi, often sounds).  This last, by the way, is what I believe Agassi means when he says he owes a debt to tennis, that tennis has taught him lessons.

Caring more deeply about his sport and its intersection with the actual world than maybe any other player, Agassi showed that sensitivity can be an asset instead of a liability for athletes, who are more commonly compared to warriors and assassins.  This has had far-reaching effects on sport.  No longer do we think that true champions must be repressive drones or angry jerks.  If Federer is Sampras’ technical heir, he is Agassi’s emotional heir: he wins without negativity.  Federer, Andy Roddick, and others have also followed the lead Agassi set by forming their own foundations (Agassi’s runs a public school in a deprived section of Las Vegas).  The more impassive Sampras won more, and the more talented Federer will win more, but Agassi’s care has won him the love of the world.  The most important thing I’ve learned from watching him is how to defeat winning and losing.

The rest of Dispatches.