Andre Agassi, 1999 US Open

With Sampras out due to injury, Andre Agassi was the man to beat at the 1999 US Open. Agassi dropped only two sets en route to the final: to Justin Gimmelstob in the third round and Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the semifinals. In the other side of the draw Todd Martin defeated Slava Dosedel in the quarterfinals and Cédric Pioline in the semifinals to advance to his second Grand Slam final.

From Agassi’s autobiography, Open:

I’m on the verge of being number one again. This time it’s not my father’s goal or Perry’s or Brad’s, and I remind myself that it’s not mine either. It would be nice, that’s all. […]

In the final I face Martin. I thought it would be Pete. I said publicly that I wanted Pete, but he pulled out of the tournament with a bad back. So it’s Martin, who’s been there, across the net, at so many critical junctures.
At Wimbledon, in 1994, when I was still struggling to absorb Brad’s teachings, I lost to Martin in a nip-and-tuck five-setter. At the US Open the same year, Lupica [1] predicted that Martin would upend me in the semis, and I believed him, but still managed to beat Martin and win the tournament. In Stuttgart, in 1997, it was my appalling first-round loss to Martin that finally pushed Brad to the breaking point. Now it’s Martin who will be a test of my newfound maturity, who will show if the changes in me are fleeting or meaningful.

I break him in the first game. The crowd is solidly behind me. Martin doesn’t hang his head, however, doesn’t lose any poise. He makes me work for the first set, then comes out stronger in the second, taking it in a tight tiebreak. He then wins the third set – an even tighter tiebreak. He leads two sets to one, a commanding lead at this tournament. No one ever comes back from such a deficit in the final here. It hasn’t happened in twenty-six years. I see in Martin’s eyes that he’s feeling it, and waiting for me to show the old cracks in my mental armor. He’s waiting for me to crumble, to revert to that jittery, emotional Andre he’s played so often in years past. But I neither fold nor yoeld. I win the fourth set, 6-3, and in the fifth set, 6-2, and walk away knowing I’m healed, I’m back, exulting that Stefanie [2] was here to see it. I’ve made only five unforced errors in the final two sets. Not once all day have I lost my serve, and it comes as I capture my fifth slam. When I get back to Vegas I want to put five hundred on number five at a roulette table.

In the press room, one reporter asks why I think the New York crowd was pulling for me, cheering so loudly.
I wish I knew. But I take a guess: They’ve watched me grow up.
Of course fans everywhere have watched me grow up, but in New York their expectations were higher, which helped accelerate and validate my growth.
It’s the first time I’ve felt, or dared to say aloud, that I’m a grown-up.

[1] Mike Lupica, journalist
[2] Steffi Graf. They were at the beginning of their relationship.

Andre Agassi, gold medallist, Atlanta 1996

From Agassi‘s autobiography Open:

As the Games begin, sportswriters kill me for skipping the opening ceremonies. But I’m not in Atlanta for opening ceremonies, I’m here for gold, and I need to hoard what little concentation and energy I can muster these days. The tennis is being played in Stone Mountain, an hour’s drive from the opening ceremonies downtown. Stand around in Georgia heat and humidity, wearing a coat and tie, waiting for hours to walk around the tack, then drive to Stone Mountain and give my best? No. I can’t. I’d love to experience the pageantry, to savor the spectacle of Olympics, but not before my first match. This, I tell myself is focus. This is what it means to put substance above image.

With a good night’s sleep under my belt I win my first-rounder against Jonas Bjorkman, from Sweden. In the second round I cruise past Karol Kucera, from Slovakia. In the thris ound I face a stiffer test from Andrea Gaudenzi, from Italy. He has a muscle-bound game. He likes to trade body blows, and if you respect him too much he gets more macho.
I don’t show him any respect. But the ball doesn’t respect me. I’m making all sorts of unforced errors. Before I know what’s happening, I’m down a set and a break? I look to Brad. What should I do? He yells: Stop missing!
Oh. Right. Sage advice. I stop missing, stop trying to hit winners, put the pressue back on Gaudenzi. It’s really that simple, and I scrape out an ugly, satisfying win.

In the quarters I’m on the verge on the elimination against Ferreira. He’s up 5-4 in the third, serving for the match. But he’s never beaten me before, and I know exactly what’s going on inside his body. Something my father used to say comes back to me: If you stick a piece of charcoal up his ass, you’ll pull out a diamond? (Round, Tiffany cut). I know Ferreira’s sphincter is squeezing shut, and this makes me confident. I rally, break him, win the match.

In the semis I meet Leander Paes, from India. He’s a flying jumping bean, a bundle of hyperkinetic energy, with the tour’s quickest hands. Still, he’s never learned to hit a ball. He hits off-speed, hacks, chips, lobs – he’s the Brad of Bombay. Then, behind all his junk, he flies to the net and covers so well that it all seems to work. After an hour you feel as if he hasn’t hit one ball cleanly – and yet he’s beating you soundly. Because I’m prepared, I stay patient, stay calm, and beat Paes 7-6 6-3.

In the final I play Sergi Bruguera, from Spain. […]
From the opening serve, I’m pounding Bruguera, moving him from corner to corner, making him cover a parcel of real estate the size of Barcelona. Every point is a blow to his midsection. In the middle of the second set set we have a titanic rally. He wins the point to get back to deuce. […]
Even though Bruguera has won the point, Gil sees, and I see, that winning the point cost him the next six games.

As I mount the review stand, I think: What will this feel like? I’ve watched this on TV so many times, can it possibly live up to my expectations? Or, like so many things, will it fall short?
I look left and right. Paes, the bronze winner, is on one side. Bruguera, the silver winner, is on the other. My platform is a foot higher – one of the few times I’m taller than my opponents. But I’d feel ten feet tall on any surface. A man drapes the gold medal around my neck. The national anthem starts. I feel my heart swell, and it has nothing to do with tennis, or me, and thus it exceeds all my expectations.

Lleyton Hewitt, 1998

Vince Spadea on Lleyton Hewitt’s first ATP title, extract from Facing Hewitt by Scoop Malinowski:

I expected to steamroll the kid

I played against Hewitt in the 1998 quarters at Adelaide, his hometown in the south of Australia, when he was a sixteen year old wildcard. Everyone was wondering how he got a wildcard in the first place, because he was like No.500 in the world at the time and nobody had ever heard of him. Some of the other Australian players were mystified. He had just played a Satellite, which is an even lower pro tournament than a Challenger, that has since been mostly phased out in favor of Futures, the week before Adelaide, and he had lost to a nobody. Our match was a night match, center court. I see this little guy with long blond hair who looks like a surfer, walk out on the court. I figure: “I’m in the semis. This kid is sixteen and he looked weak, inexperienced, unrehearsed, and unpolished.”

The match begins and he’s holding his own. He keeps on hitting balls in the court. I wasn’t playing strongly enough or consistently enough to overpower him even though I’ve got him outweighed by about forty pounds. I end up losing the first set 7-5. Now I’m thinking: “What does this kid think he’s doing?” He didn’t miss one shot long the entire set. My dad, who was coaching me, said after the match “He missed into the net and he missed wide but he never missed past the baseline.” Whenever Hewitt won a big point he screeched out, ‘COME ON’ and punched the air with his fist. I thought that was a little annoying and cocky of him but I didn’t let it bother or initimidate me. I won the second set 6-3. I had been working with Jim Pierce (coach and father of Mary Pierce), so I was in great shape. I had been killing myself in training. I expected to steamroll the kid in the third set. But instead, he put his game into another gear and beat me soundly 6-1 to win the match.

The next day I was eating breakfast with my dad in the players’ cafeteria and Brad Gilbert, coach of Andre Agassi, walked up to us and completely ignored me. He approached my dad and said “Your son had Hewitt last night but he choked. Andre will show you how to handle the kid tonight.”

Of course, Hewitt straight-setted Agassi 7-6 7-6 and then went on to win the tournament. Hewitt has gone on to win almost twenty million dollars in his career, along with a Wimbledon and US Open title. He’s a true warrior on the court. He doesn’t get fazed by disappointment o failure? He doesn’t worry about if he’s hitting the ball great or if he’s winning or losing, he just enjoys the battle. The only other player who battled as successfully as Hewitt was Jimmy Connors. Hewitt will never give up and he doesn’t mind if he has to win hard or easy. He’s one of the greatest competitors in tennis.

Photo credit: Al Bello/Allsport – Lleyton Hewitt in 1998

Andre Agassi defeats Pete Sampras, 1995 Australian Open

Excerpt of Andre Agassi‘s autobiography Open:

At the 1995 Australian Open I come out like the Incredible Hulk. I don’t drop one set in a take-no-prisoners blitz to the final. This is the first time I’ve played in Australia, and I can’t imagine why I’ve waited so long. I like the surface, the venue – the heat. Having grown up in Vegas, I don’t feel the heat the way others players do, and the defining characteristic of the Australian Open is the unholy temperature. Just as cigar and pipe smoke lingers in the memory after playing Roland Garros, the hazy memory of playing in a giant kiln stays with you for weeks after you leave Melbourne.

I also enjoy the Australian people, and they apparently enjoy me, even though I’m not me, I’m this new bald guy in a bandana and a goatee and a hoop earring. Newspapers go to town with my new look. Everyone has an opinion. Fans who rooted for me are disoriented. Fans who rooted against me have a new reason to dislike me. I read and hear a remarkable succession of pirate jokes. I never knew there could be so many pirate jokes. But I don’t care. I tell myself that everyone is going to have to deal with this pirate, accept this pirate, when I hoist that trophy.

In the final I run smack into Pete. I lose the first set in nothing flat. I lose it gutlessly, on a double fault. Here we go again.
I take time before the second set to collect myself. I glance toward my box. Brad looks frustrated. He’s never believed that Pete is the better player. His face says, You’re the better player, Andre. Don’t respect him so much.

Pete is serving like grenades, one after another, a typical Pete fusillade. But in the middle of the second set, I feel him tiring. His grenades still have the pins in them. He’s wearing down physically, and emotionally, because he’s been through hell these last few days. His longtime coach, Tim Gullikson, suffered two strokes, and then they discovered a tumor in his brain. Pete is traumatized. As the match turns my way, I feel guilty. I’d be willing to stop, let Pete go into the locker room, get an IV, and come back as that other Pete who likes to kick my ass at slams.
I break him twice. He slumps his shoulders, concedes the set.

The third set comes down to a jittery tiebreak. I grab a 3-0 lead and then Pete wins the next four points. Suddenly he’s up 6-4, serving for the set. I let out a caveman scream, as if I’m in the weight room with Gil, and put everything I’ve got into a return that nicks the net and stays inside the line. Pete stares at the ball, then me.
On the next point he hits a forehand that sails long. We’re deadlocked at 6. A furious rally ends when I shock him by coming to the net and hitting a soft backhand drop volley. It works so well, I do it again. Set, Agassi. Momentum, ditto.

The fourth set is a foregone conclusion. I keep my foot on the gas and win, 6-4. Pete looks resolved. Too much hill to climb. In fact, he’s maddeningly unruffled as he comes to the net.
It’s my second slam in a row, my third overall. Everyone says it’s my best slam yet, because it’s my first victory over Pete in a slam final. But I think twenty years from now I’ll remember it as my first bald slam.

Andre Agassi and Michael Stich, 1994 US Open

Excerpt from Andre Agassi’s autobiography Open

Going into the 1994 US Open, I’m number 20, therefore unseeded. No unseeded player has won the US Open since the 1960s.

Brad (Gilbert) likes it. He says he wants me unseeded. He wants me to be the joker in the deck. You’ll play someone tough in the early rounds, he says, and if you beat them, you’ll win this tournament. […]

Because of my low ranking, I’m under the radar at this US Open. (I’d be more under the radar if Brooke weren’t on hand, setting off a photo shoot each time she turns her head.) I’m all business, and I dress the part. I wear a black hat, black shorts, black socks, black-and-white shoes. But at the start of my first-rounder, against Robert Eriksson, I feel the old brittle nerves. I feel sick to my stomach. I fight through it, thinking of Brad, refusing to entertain any thought of perfection. I concentrate on being solid, letting Eriksson lose, and he does. He sends me sailing into the second round.

Then – after nearly choking – I beat Guy Forget, from France. That I take out Wayne Ferreira, from South Africa in straight sets. […]

Then I walk into a classic Chang buzz saw. He’s that rare phenomenon – an opponent who wants to win exactly as much as I do, no more, no less. We both know from the opening serve that it’s going down the wire. Photo finish. No other way to settle it. But in the fifth set, thinking we’re destined for a tiebreak, I catch a rythm and break him early. I’m making crazy shots, and I feel him losing traction. It’s almost not fair, after such a back-and-forth fight, the way I’m sneaking away with this match. I should be having more trouble with him in the final minutes, but it’s sinfully easy.
At his news conference, Chang tells reporters about a different match that the one I just played. He says he could have played another two sets. Andre got lucky, he says. Furthermore, Chang expresses a great deal of pride that he exposed holes in my game, and he predicts other players in the tournament will thank him. He says I’m vulnerable now. I’m toast.

Next I face Muster. I make good my vow that I will never lose to him again. It takes every ounce of self-control not to rub his head at the net.

I’m in the semis. […] Martin, who just beat me at Wimbledon, is a deadly opponent. He has a nice hold game and a solid break game. He’s huge, six foot six, and returns the serve off both wings with precision and conviction. He’ll cane a serve that isn’t first rate, which puts enormous pressure on an average server like me. With his own serve he’s uncannily accurate.[…]

Still, as the first few games unfold, I realize that several things are in my favor. Martin is better on grass than hard court. This is my surface. Also, like me, he’s an underachiever. He’s a fellow slave to nerves. I understand the man I’m playing, therefore, understand him intimately. Simply knowing your enemy is a powerful advantage.
Above all, Martin has a tic. A tell. Some players, when serving, look at their opponent? Some look at nothing. Martin looks at a particular spot in the service box. If he stares a long time at that spot, he’s serving in the opposite direction. If he merely glances, he’s serving right at that spot. You might not notice it at 0-0 or 15-love, but on break point, he stares at that spot with psycho eyes, like the killer in a horror movie, or glances and looks away like a beginner at the poker tables.

The match unfolds so easily, however, that I don’t need Martin’s tell. He seems unsteady, dwarfed by the occasion, whereas I’m playing with uncommon determination. I see him doubt himself – I can almost hear his doubt – and I sympathize. As I walk off the court, the winner in four sets, I think, He’s got some maturing to do. Then I catch myself. Did I really just say that – about someone else?

In the final I face Michael Stich, from Germany. He’s been to the final at three slams, so he’s not like Martin, he’s a threat on every surface. He’s also a superb athlete with an unreal wingspan. He has a mighty first serve, heavy and fast, and when it’s on, which it usually is, he can serve you into next week. He’s so accurate, you’re shocked when he misses, and you have to overcome your shock to stay in the point. Even when he does miss, however, you’re not out of the woods, because he falls back on his safe serve, a knuckleball that leaves you with your jock on the ground. And just to keep you a bit more off balance, Stich is without any patterns or tendencies. You never know if he’s going to serve and volley or stay back at the baseline.
Hoping to seize control, dictate the terms, I come fast out of the blocks, hitting the ball clean, crisp, pretending to feel no fear. i like the sound the ball makes off my racket. I like the sound of the crowd, their oohs and aahs. Stich, meanwhile, comes out skittish. When you lose the first set as quickly as he does, 6-1, you instinct is to panic. I can see in his body language that he’s succumbing to that instinct.
He pulls himself together in the second set, however, and gives me a two-fisted battle. I won 7-6 but feel lucky. I know it could have gone either way.
In the third set we both raise the stakes. I feel the finish line pulling, but now he’s mentally committed to this fight. There have been times in the past when he’s given up against me, when he’s taken unnecessary risks because he hasn’t believed in himself. Not this time. He’s playing smart, proving to me that I’m going to have to rip the trophy from him if I really want it. And I do want it.
So I will rip it. We have long rallies off my serve, until he realizes I’m committed, I’m willing to hit with him all day. I catch sight of him grabbing his side, winded. I start picturing how the trophy will look in the bachelor pad back in Las Vegas.
There are no breaks of serve through the third set. Until 5-all. Finally I break him, and now I’m serving for the match. I hear Brad’s voice, as clearly as if he were standing behind me. Go for his forehand. When in doubt, forehand, forehand. So I hit to Stich’s forehand. Again and again he misses. The outcome feels, to both of us, I think, inevitable.

I fall to my knees. My eyes fill with tears. I look to my box, to Perry and Philly and Gil and especially Brad. You know everything you need to know about people when you see their faces at the moments of you greatest triumph. I’ve believed in Brad’s talent from the beginning, but now, seeing his pure and unrestrained happiness for me, I believe unestrainedly in him.

Reporters tell me I’m the first unseeded player since 1966 to win the US Open. More importantly, the first man who ever did it was Frank Shields, grandfather of the fifth person in my box. Brooke, who’s been here for every match, looks every bit as happy as Brad.