Friday, August 13, 1999

Evolution of Agassi unfolds by the match




BY PAUL DAUGHERTY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MASON — On his 28th birthday Thursday, Pete Sampras admitted to becoming a little tired of it all. After 12 years as a pro, 12 Grand Slam titles and six years as the top-ranked tennis player in the world, the crown rests heavy on his head.

        “The older you get, it gets — it can get — monotonous,” Sampras said.

        This is not a problem for Andre Agassi. When tennis gets heavy, he takes a load off. When the desire returns, so does he, different than before. Agassi has had more incarnations than Madonna. At the moment, he is trim and single and committed to tennis.

        Next year — next month, next week — who knows? We have seen him here since 1990. In that time, Agassi has been just about everyone. He has sampled the human condition: heartthrob Andre, religious Andre, married Andre, fat Andre, resurrected Andre. Long-haired and no-haired. (Now, he's shaved like a chihuahua.) Single and not. Committed to tennis and not.

        With Andre, you never know. Agassi is a real piece of work in progress.

Not just about tennis
        He grunted his way past Jiri Novak in the round of 16 Thursday. Novak served big. He kept Agassi on the baseline. He made Andre work for his 7-6, 7-6 win.

        Agassi was willing to put in the time. He won each set with an ace, stayed together after blowing three match points and overcame a lousy night with his backhand. He's in the quarterfinals and playing well.

        This is good for men's tennis, which was wallowing until Agassi won the French Open stunningly in June. Men's tennis was on the inside pages before the French. After, it was magazine covers.

        Agassi is the only man who transcends the sport. Sampras isn't interested; Patrick Rafter isn't sure. Agassi does it naturally.

        Agassi is not a tennis-obsessive, which makes him interesting. Because he is famous, his mutations all have been public. That makes him even more interesting. All players understand there is life away from tennis. Very few put the knowledge to use. Agassi always has.

        “I can't do things for a long period without feeling like there's other things out there,” Agassi said recently. “I can't just write off the first 30 years of my life to tennis.”

Finding his way back
        Two years ago, as a man in love, he talked about perspective, and you knew his game was headed for the dumper. No great athlete is burdened by perspective.

        Agassi finished 1997 ranked 141st in the world. He didn't play three of the Grand Slams. He lived the Hollywood life with former wife Brooke Shields.

        “I was playing a lot of golf. It was awesome,” he said.

        It was an incredible choice Agassi made. At 27, he decided to get off the tennis carousel. Great players stay great until their skills tell them they can't. Agassi claimed disinterest and walked away.

        Famous jocks are not permitted mid-career crises. Imagine Jack Nicklaus at 27, saying: “Being the best doesn't interest me anymore. I think I'll let my game slide and play the Nike Tour.”

        Ironically, Agassi is seeing the benefits now. “I've had the luxury of having breaks” is how he put it.

        “It has helped my sanity. I don't know if it's helped my career. For me to stay in the grind year after year was not even possible,” he said.

        Agassi did what lots of us wish we could do, at some time or another, but rarely have the courage (or the money) to do: He walked away. If he had any regrets about opportunities lost, they disappeared in Paris.

        “What happened (at the French) answered any regrets I might have had,” Agassi said.

        How long will tennis interest him this time? How many different Andres are yet to come? Agassi is a stay-tuned kind of guy.

        “Everybody needs to find what makes them best” was what Agassi said about that.

        “I understand that,” Rafter said. “He just wants a little peace of mind.”

        Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.

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