Steel, Spirit And Stamina: Tennis Icon Andre Agassi Turns 50

Agassi put down his racquet in 2006 after a total of eight Grand Slams
12:53, 28 Apr 2020

Only seven male tennis players in history have won the Wimbledon singles title, the Australian, the French, and the US Open, known as the Career Grand Slam.

Pete Sampras never achieved it, nor Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors, or John McEnroe. Not even the great Björn Borg.

One of those magnificent seven was a player who detested the sport.

“I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion and always have," once declared the man who had had a racquet placed into his hand almost immediately upon exiting the womb and forced to hit an endless stream of forehands across a homemade court in the Las Vegas desert.

“Only boxers can understand the loneliness of tennis players...In tennis you stand face-to-face with the enemy, trade blows with him, but never touch him or talk to him, or anyone else... In tennis you're on an island.

“Of all the games men and women play, tennis is the closest to solitary confinement...”

Andre Agassi was born on April 29, 1970. At the age of 13 he was sent away to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, nearly 2500 miles away from his hometown. His father could only afford three months. Such was the prodigiousness of the young Agassi he was retained by Bollettieri, free of charge.

Agassi turned professional two days after his 16th birthday. Fiery and feisty, he took his internal anger at the sport out on his opponents, in the beginning seemingly purposely trying to hit the man on the other side of the net. “My dad pushed me to believe that I was going to be the best,” Agassi later said, “I just never thought of life without tennis.”

As he turns 50 this April, Andre Agassi remains one of the premier icons seen in the history of a sport that is none too bereft of them.

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There was the look: dangling earring, towering mullet, bandana, lime green shirt, with McEnroe levels of both temperament and quality on-court.

In comparison to his fellow countrymen, the records Sampras set at Wimbledon in the 1990s, and the later triumphs of Serena Williams, Agassi’s achievements could be overshadowed. 

It is the Lazarusian narrative of Agassi’s career, as well as his dissidence, however, that made him such an endearing athlete, and undeniably one of the greatest players to have ever graced the game (whether he liked it or not!). Furthermore, despite his nation’s profencity for producing champions, Agassi is one of only two American males - the other being Don Budge - to have achieved the Career Grand Slam.

After breaking onto the scene in the late ‘80s as the new brat on the block, losing to compatriot and former roommate Jim Courier in the 1991 French Open Final had led him to question his future in the sport. He had lost in Paris in the final the year before - something that Agassi attributed to his worry of his wig falling off in front of the unaware spectators - and his younger rival Sampras had stolen a march by winning his first Grand Slam over Agassi in the US Open Final of 1990. It was turning into a case of always being the bridesmaid.

After deliberating ducking Wimbledon for three years, having professed his disdain for the traditionalism and conformity demanded by The Championships, Agassi finally made his way to the All Grass Courts.

He beat the then 33-year-old McEnroe in the semi-finals before facing Goran Ivanišević, the player who then had the fastest, most devastating serve in tennis and had chalked up 169 aces throughout the tournament.

Agassi was unafraid and channelled that ferocity into returning Ivanišević’s serve and, at 22-years old, Agassi had his first Grand Slam. He later smashed his Wimbledon trophy after being angered by his then-girlfriend, and future wife, actress Brooke Shields, having to participate in a kissing scene with actor Matt LeBlanc when she guest-starred on Friends.

Defending his title in London the year after however was a disaster. Having purportedly gauged on McDonalds and pizza in the lead up, Agassi’s best preparation was shaving his chest hair: “It makes me a little more aerodynamic out there on the court,” he told the press, to laughter. With his pal Barbra Streisand in the box, it was more of a case of Agassi the celebutante than Agassi the athlete.

This wasn’t, however, the case at the 1994 US Open. Unseeded at Flushing Meadows for the first time since 1987, Agassi battled his way into the tournament and eventually defeated Michael Stich in straight sets in the final. Two down.

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Sporting his brand new buzz cut, Agassi beat Sampras in Melbourne in 1995 for his third Grand Slam. It was Agassi’s first ever appearance at the event. Later that year he achieved his first Number One ranking after winning the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championship.

“I thought that getting to number one was going to be the moment I made sense of my life,” Agassi later said, “But it left me a little empty, and I spiralled down until something had to change."

That reached a nadir when he fell to 141st in the rankings in 1997. It was the same year, Agassi later infamously admitted, of his crystal meth experimentation.

Agassi went back to ground-zero, avoiding wildcard places and instead reverting to steel, spirit, and stamina, true grit and sheer hardheadedness to work his way back up.

In 1999 he was World Number One once more, and then again, at the age of 33 years and 13 days, following a quarterfinal victory over Xavier Malisse at the Queen's Club Championships in 2003, Agassi became the oldest top-ranked male player since the ATP rankings began. 

It was still a case, however, of three Grand Slams chalked off, that elusive Coupe des Mousquetaires from Roland Garros missing from his mantlepiece. In the ‘99 Final, Agassi found himself two sets to love down to Andriy Medvedev. In one of the most impressive displays ever seen on clay, almost a decade after that first defeat in the French capital, one colossal comeback made Agassi just the second player in the Open Era for that quad-major set. It would be the most successful overall year of his career, adding another US Open title to go with that Number One ranking. 

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Further success came in the early part of the new century, with triple wins in Australia. As of 2020, he remains the last American male to lift the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup.

Agassi retired from professional tennis after defeat at the 2006 US Open. He had played at that particular tournament for every single year from 1986 without interruption. With tears in his eyes, Agassi told the crowd gathered at that spot in New York, many who no doubt recalled the precocious 18-year-old at the same venue twenty years prior; “The scoreboard said I lost today. But what the scoreboard doesn’t say is what it is I have found. Over the last 21 years, I have found loyalty. You have pulled for me on the court and in life....”

Andre Agassi, the most reluctant and dedicated warrior ever to wield a racquet, wasn’t lonely.

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