Thursday, August 12, 1999

Agassi in top form

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Andre Agassi breezed in his ATP opener.
(Gary Landers photo)
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        MASON — With all the wattage required to stage the Great American Insurance ATP Championship, the most notable power source is controlled by one tiny switch. The one in Andre Agassi's mind.

        “It's easy to turn the switch off,” he said. “It's not so easy to turn the switch on. It has never come easy.”

        It has definitely come.

        He was back in town Wednesday, the Andre Agassi we saw here in 1995, when he was the world's top-ranked player. Now ranked No.3, Agassi beat Arnaud Di Pasquale 6-4, 6-1 in his ATP opener, advancing to a round-of-16 match today against 42nd-ranked Jiri Novak.

        Agassi has won 21 of his last 24 matches, revitalizing interest in his sport this year with a stunning triumph in the French Open and runner-up finish at Wimbledon. He became only the fifth man and first American to win all four Grand Slam events.

        All of which only Agassi understands.

        “I'm just amazed that he's able to flip it on like the flip of a switch,” Jim Courier said. “He can just decide that, "OK, I'm going to play great now,' and he has the ability to do it.”

        The 29-year-old Agassi has been a career chameleon, sprinkling his 13-year professional run with performances both exhilarating and exasperating. The legacy he will leave comes in the range of his extremes.

        The first swing came late in 1993. He had spent five consecutive years in the top 10, but a wrist injury slowed him enough that he fell to No.32 in February 1994. By year's end, motivation and muscle had returned, and he ranked No.2.

        Then came the tumult of 1997, in which he married actress Brooke Shields and steered his priorities away from tennis. He skipped three of the four Grand Slam events and swelled to 185 pounds, 20 more than his current playing weight.

        That fall, his ranking slipped to No.141, his lowest in 11 years. After a loss in Germany in October, he and coach Brad Gilbert retired to their hotel and drank several beers. Then Gilbert hit him with candor:

        “You're a shadow of yourself. Play or don't play. But you're too good and you've meant too much to the game to go out on the court and be a shadow.”

        Agassi went back to challenger tournaments, the tennis equivalent of Triple-A. He started with an event at a 1,500-seat stadium in Las Vegas where he had to keep his own match score by flipping a card.

        Humility hurts. It also can help.

        “I've been asked all through the journey if I can do it,” Agassi said. “My answer was always, "Yeah, I can do it. Whether I will or not is a different story.' ... You know, when I get my eyes fixed on something, I'm usually pretty intense about it.”

        Agassi made the biggest one-year jump into the top 10 in the history of the ATP rankings, climbing from No.122 at the end of '97 to No.6 after last year. His marriage was crumbling, though, and he filed for divorce this April but says he and Shields remain close.

        One more stumbling block: Just before the French Open, Agassi considered withdrawing with a nagging shoulder soreness. Gilbert challenged him, saying, “If it was me, I'd break my arm to play.”

        Confidence came slowly. He was two points from defeat in the second round, down a set and two breaks to defending champ Carlos Moya in the fourth round, down two sets to Andrei Medvedev in the finals. Yet he triumphed.

        After getting the trophy, he returned to his Paris hotel and called Shields. They sobbed together on the phone.

        “This (comeback) means more than the first time,” Agassi said. “I just was at a place (in his career) where I could appreciate it a lot more. I'm enjoying it probably more now than I ever have.”

        The sport is riding his charge. NBC's ratings for the French final were 43 percent higher than last year's, and ratings for his Wimbledon final against Pete Sampras were up 50 percent from last year's.

        “Andre definitely brings the people who might not follow tennis to follow tennis,” Sampras said. “What he did at the French was a huge jolt for the game. He definitely is a big reason why tennis has kind of come back.”

        Agassi reclaimed the summit last month, reaching No.1 for the first time in four years. Though he is back to No.3, Agassi remains confident he can regain the top ranking.

        “I think I'm playing better now than I ever have,” he said. “I think the window of time ahead of me is still in my control. I don't feel like it's a race against the clock. I feel like I'm actually getting better.”


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