Andre Agassi, 1991

By Scott Ostler, published in THE NATIONAL, March 1991

LAS VEGAS- So I’m driving a white, $500,000 Lamborghini Countach, which is basically a jet engine with turn signals, weaving through heavy traffic near the Strip, trying to catch another motorist who has requested a drive-by autograph from the guy riding shotgun with me, trying to be cool while hoping not to pop the clutch and send us rocketing into the fountain at Caesars Palace, and idly wondering if I’m being conned.

My passenger, the owner of the Lamborghini, is Andre Agassi, Mr. Rock ‘n’ Roll Tennis. Public opinion on Agassi seems divided into two camps – tennis insiders, who see Agassi as an overrated phony with bad manners, and tennis outsiders, who see Agassi as an overrated phony with bad manners.

Agassi is aware of the criticism. He is aware that, to an extent, he has earned it. He has launched a campaign to make himself more accessible to the press and lovable to the public.

I have taken my shots at Agassi in print, had roaring good fun at his expense because it seemed like the right thing to do. But a tennis promoter I know has pleaded with me, “If you just meet Andre, get to know him…”

Sounds like a crazy idea, but I phone Agassi’s agent and request an interview. The agent phones back and says Andre will do an interview, but there is a catch. The agent says, “Andre wants to know if, instead of just talking for an hour or so, you two can get together and spend some quality time.”

This is not an unusual request in the world of athlete-media relations; this is a freakish and bizarre request. Most famous sports figures define quality time as any time spent away from the media – the farther away, the higher the quality.

Paranoia sets in. Am I allowing myself to be used as a PR tool, a dupe in a plot to fix Agassi’s bad name so he can sell more sneakers and cameras?

Or could it be that he really is a decent fellow who wants the world to see the side of him that isn’t about tanking, taunting, ducking, and spitting?

You be the judge. For the record, though, I spent about seven hours with Agassi in this, his hometown, and here are some of the things he did not do:

* Curse,

* Gossip or badmouth anyone in any significant way, not even to call anyone a bozo.

* Fail to open a door for anyone, man or woman.

* Fail to drive courteously and safely.

* Refuse an autograph request.

* Bleach, tease, comb or fuss with his famous hair, or otherwise primp or pose.

* Play loud music on his car stereo, except for one quick demonstration.

* Leer at babes.

* Act even remotely angry, impatient, bored, spoiled, or – as we used to say in high school – stuck up.

Still, the day wasn’t a complete washout.

“If youdon’t mind, I’d like to take you my favorite place for breakfast,” Agassi says.

We hop into his Jeep and drive to the outskirts of town, to a truck-stop diner just off the interstate. He parks near the sea of 18-wheelers. At the diner entrance, a trucker does a groggy double-take as the kid with a diamond earring, long fluffy hair and Levi’s shorts politely holds open the door.

Sure, this restaurant could be part of the con. But the people who work here know Andre, a couple of them come out of the kitchen to exchange pleasantries. Nobody asks for an autograph.

“To me, this is real life,” Agassi says. “It’s not people making you believe you’re something special.”

He says that’s a problem. “I always do my best to remind myself what reality is. You have to fight so hard to keep a grip on it, to deal with the fact that you are never lacking in friends, that there’s always someone around who makes you feel like you’re special. You can forget that loneliness is a reality, but in my world, loneliness comes in a different way.

“You’re never sure, if your money was gone, how many people would still care. One thing I worry about is motives. I put people on stage. The few people really close to me, I don’t question them, but the others are guilty until proven innocent…”

Girls, for instance. They dig Andre. But is it for his money and fame, or for himself? Some girls send him photos of themselves naked. Some try and weasel into his hotel rooms. Before Andre enters a hotel room, his burly weight-training coach goes in first and checks under the beds and in the closets.

Until recently Agassi went steady with one girl for about two years.

“I’m not exclusive anymore,” he says, “but I hang out with a limited amount of people.”

Female-wise, his main friend these days is a BYU student whom Agassi doesn’t have to put on trial, which is a big relief.

“I’ve known her since I was 8,” Agassi says, “but I’m going to run out of girls like that pretty soon.”

Speaking of motives, I mention to Agassi that people might be skeptical of his new glasnost with the media, see it as a slick image-repair campaign.

“I’m flattered that they would think I’m that smart,” Agassi says. “I’m hoping my sincerity shows through that.”

Referring to a writer from THE NATIONAL who has been critical of Agassi, he says, “My goal is not to change the ideas about me. I don’t want to change the [John] Feinsteins of the world. I just don’t want to become like people, who in the midst of surviving pressure, stop telling their story. We all have pressure in our daily lives; we can’t let the pressure beat us.”

The closest Agassi has come to tap-dancing is when he talks about the pancake house incident. In a Florida restaurant one night last December, sportswriter Barry Lorge overheard Andre and his brother Phil seemingly plotting to fake an injury so Andre could skip a tournament.

“Philly and I were talking about taking steps as alternatives, not as strategies,” Andre says. “I was injured, and we were discussing ways to make that known as soon as possible, and it came off as some kind of conspiracy. I was really trying to make the right decisions.”

The flapjack flap was the sledgehammer that broke the camel’s back. Tennis magazine named Agassi Twit of the Year, and called him the Milli Vanilli of tennis.

And yet, there are the fans. At tournaments, the fans seem to enjoy the Andre show.

“Walking onto the court in San Francisco, I was reluctant to see how the crowd would respond,” Andre says. “I was relieved to see that [past misdeeds] were either water under the bridge, or were not taken seriously in the first place… Every time I step onto the court and people are in the stands, I’m flattered.”

Say this about Andre Agassi: He can drive down the street in one of his seven gleaming cars, fans honking and staring and waving, the world at his feet and be aware that he is one lucky dude.

“My father always says I was born with a horseshoe up my ass,” Agassi says with a laugh. (OK, one curse word in seven hours.) “Things have worked out well for me.”

We stop at his parents’ home, where Andre lives when he’s in Las Vegas, and we tour the garage. He owns three Porsches, the Jeep, the Lamborghini, a Ferrari Testarossa and a special-edition Corvette that will blow the doors off your standard wimpy ‘Vette. Andre is curretnly showroom-drooling over something called a Vector, a high-performance space vehicle capable of 240 mph.

He loves to give cars as gifts. He has given cars to his two sisters, his trainer, his coach. He gave a Porsche to brother Phil, a Range Rover to mom and Cadillacs to his dad, Mike Agassi. Alas, Mike Agassi still struggles with the adjustment from smaller cars to the heavy Motown metal. He has crashed two Cads and is currently nursing No. 3.

“The one thing I’d miss if I didn’t have money,” Andre says, with innocent sincerity, “would be not being able to buy my dad a new Cadillac when he totals one.”

Andre shows me his Porsche S4 GT 172 and says, “This is a real practical car, even for a family.”

Family of two, max.

The Lamborghini is practical, too, now that there is a Lamborghini mechanic in Las Vegas and Agassi doesn’t have to ship the car to Los Angeles on a flatbed truck every time it needs a fan belt.

The cars, Andre admits, are an indulgence. They are his reward for a boyhood donated to tennis, for being yanked out of school in the middle of the eighth grade and packed off to Florida, “moving away from home at 13 to a tennis academy that was like a military school.”

Andre’s agent, Bill Shelton of International Management Group, hates to see his client spend so much money on cars, but Shelton shrugs and says, “They really are his only vice.”

Andre cranks up the monster stereo system in the Ferrari. From the power and volume, I’m guessing that the Ferrari’s motor has been removed to make room for the speakers. The garage shakes but does not collapse, since the song he’s playing is mellow rock. No heavy metal for this boy.

“I’m into lyrics,” he says. “James Taylor, people like that.”

Andre Agassi, the perpetrator of Rock ‘n’ Roll Tennis, is an easy-listening kind of guy? It’s true. When Barry Manilow played Vegas, Andre went to see the show. Two nights in a row.

His parents’ home is a nice suburban layout but far from palatial. Andre uses his bedroom only for storage, he sleeps on a coach in the den. His alarm clock is a giant cockatoo named Fred.

“I want to buy a big, new couch,” says Mike Agassi, spreading his arms in the living room, “so Andre can sleep here, watch TV.”

The backyard is dominated by a tennis court, where Mike gives free lessons to nine local kids, and a giant TV satellite spy dish. Satellite feeds of sports events omit the commercials, allowing Mike to eavesdrop on announcers as they chit-chat during the breaks.

Mary Carillo hates me,” Andre says, matter-of-factly.

Adds Mike Agassi, “When she is not on (live) TV, she is very obnoxious.”

“{Jimmy} Connors is very bad {anti-Andre},” Andre says. “Cliff Drysdale is good, {Fred} Stolle and {Roscoe} Tanner are good, and Barry McKay.”

High on the list of the criticisms of Agassi is the feeling that he has done more product endorsing than big-tournament winning. “Major scores through minor feats,” is how Bud Collins puts it.

Agassi never has played the Australian Open, and he has snubbed Wimbledon the last three summers because it didn’t, uh, fit his schedule. This is like the Giants skipping the Super Bowl to rest up for the exhibition season, and it has done Agassi’s image no good.

The rumor is that Agassi almost surely will play Wimbledon this summer, but he doesn’t want to make a definite public commitment yet.

“If I go, I’m going over there with high hopes,” he says. “The thought of being there makes me nervous. I’m really excited.”

Andre says he wants me to meet his trainer, Gil Reyes, who lives nearby.

“Which car should we take?” Agassi asks.

I pick the Lamborghini, and we cruise the two miles to Reyes’s house. The trip takes approximately 14 seconds.

Agassi and Gil Reyes – Andre calls him Gilly – work out in Reyes’s garage in their quest to produce the first tennis player to hit a ball so hard it vaporizes. Most top tennis players are dedicated conditioners, but Agassi probably works harder than any of them on sheer power. He works on flexibility and endurance, but power is a major component of the overall plan.

When Agassi weighed 150 pounds, he already hit the ball harder than anyone in tennis. In 14 months with Reyes, Agassi has added 27 pounds of granite, and grown two inches to an even 6 foot.

“To give you an idea,” Andre says, “when I started, I bench-pressed 135 pounds. Now I do five reps with 250 pounds. And the biggest improvement has been my legs. I lost to [Boris] Becker in ’89 in three sets. He overpowered me. Last year I beat him in three sets. We’re even now in strength; we compete on ability.”

Some critics say Andre is too strong, overmuscled. His record this season would indicate some fine-tuning is needed, but Agassi and Reyes believe the work they do in the garage is correct and vital.

Bouncing around the garage demonstrating the sophisticated equipment, Andre and Gilly are like Hans and Franz of “Saturday Night Live,” brothers dedicated to a grand quest and geeked up on the pumpatude of it all.

Andre has great affection for the members of his inner council – Gilly, Philly, Billy, Nick and Dad.

Billy is Bill Shelton, Andre’s agent at IMG. Philly is Andre’s brother, personal manager and constant traveling companion. Nick is Nick Bollettieri, Andre’s coach for the last seven years. It’s a close-knit group. You prick one, they all bleed, and at times this has been Team Tourniquet.

There is a camera convention in town and Agassi has agreed to stop by the Canon exhibit to sign some autographs. In the Canon TV commercials, Andre says, “Image is everything.”

“People want to tie that [slogan] in with my philosophy of life,” Andre says, driving over to the show. “It’s [Canon’s] slogan, not my philosophy.”

The Rebel image, though, does seem to fit. Agassi’s Nike shoe commercials also play to the basic theme- Andre as James Dean with a tennis racket. He talks of getting kicked out of the Bollettieri Academy several times for refusing to cut his hair, for failing to conform. That hasn’t changed. When he visited the White House last year to meet George and Barbara Bush, Andre showed up in a sweatsuit and sneakers.

Nor is tennis etiquette his strong suit. He is the bad boy of the sport, no question, and the gods of tennis have sent down the perfect antagonist in Pete Sampras. These two are yin and yang, Wally Cleaver and Eddie Haskel, at least on the surface.

Never mind that Agassi is a Christian who doesn’t drink, do drugs or even go to R-rated movies. Image is everything. When Sampras beat Agassi in the U.S Open final last year, it was a clear-cut case of good kicking evil’s butt.

“There probably are a lot of people who would have been disappointed if I’d beated Sampras,” Agsasi says nonchalantly. “It seems like Petey reaps the benfit of the controversy I start… He is capable of a broader fan base, but people know where I’m coming from and they know what I’m feeling. It’s like a good song, I won’t cheat you on the lyrics, I’ll give you your money’s worth. It would be too easy for me not too say a lot, not act up on the court, but the whole point is not just to survive.”

Sampras has taken subtle shots, through the media, at Agassi’s off-beatness, but Agassi says, “Petey’s really harmless, I don’t think he’s very vindictive.”

The autograph-signing goes smoothly. Agassi charms the Canon VIPs. He is still wearing the shorts, walking shoes with the laces untied, and a plain cotton shirt.

“Those wonderful legs,” sighs a woman standing in the autograph line.

Driving away from the convention center, Agassi talks about people he admires.

“I’m a big fan of [Wayne] Gretzky,” he says. “I love Jack Nicholson. I like the interest he creates, the mystique, what people would give to find out what he’s really like. That’s neat when you can carry that kind of charisma.

“Old George Bush has really won his place with me, too. The way he’s handled all this, the example he’s set for this country, has been awesome.”

We drive out to a golf course that Las Vegas hotel baron Steve Wynn has carved out of the desert for himself and a few select pals. It is a golfer’s Eden, with waterfalls and lakes, hills and trees. Some days you can play an entire round without seeing another foursome.

Agassi commandeers an electric cart and gives a high-speed tour of the course, nearly crashing into an outcropping of boulders as he drives blindly over the crest of a steep hill. Then he picks up his clubs and a bag of “range” balls – brand-new Titleists – and heads for the practice tee.

Agassi is a weekend golfer, never had a lesson. He plays lefthanded, though he’s a rightie in tennis. He pulls out a 3-wood and, on this chilly late afternoon, without so much as a warmup swing or a waggle or a tee, slams about 20 dandy drives down the middle, all well over 200 yards. Two or three veer off course, but even on those he makes solid contact. The swing is smooth, the distance impressive. Rock ‘n’ Roll golf.

It’s time to head to the airport, and he offers to let me drive the Lamborghini.

“That’s good,” he says as I merge cautiously onto the freeway, trying to ease the car out of third gear, “you’re going 90.”

He talks about what the 1991 model Andre Agassi will be like.

“I’ve made a commitment to get out more, to talk more,” he says. “Other than that, no difference. I’ll go out there and play some fun tennis, some hard tennis. I just want to add something to tennis. I have fun being me on the court.”

At a stoplight, a car pulls up next to the Lamborghini and the driver motions for an autograph. Agassi laughs and shrugs. The light turns green. Impulsively, Andre rips a page out of my notebook and signs his name.

“See if you can catch up with that guy,” he says.

If all this has been an act, it ‘s a real good one. Very convincing. The impression is that if Agassi can eliminate the more childish stuff- the spitting, the tanking, the taunting- what would be left would be an exceptional athlete with personality, charisma and style, and Tennis magazine would have to find itself a new Twit of the Year.

Agassi drops me off at the airport. As he roars away, six of seven people stop and stare, just like people always did in the last scene of “The Lone Ranger” TV show, when they would stand at the outskirts of town and watch the Lone Ranger gallop into the sunset on his white horse, and wonder what he was really like.

Jennifer Capriati

By Susan Reed, People Weekly, May 1994

At 13 she was a bubbly kid with a booming forehand. At 18, she’s burned out, partying hard and facing a drug charge. Is this payback for a stolen childhood?

The seeds of trouble may have been sown even earlier than that brilliantly sunny afternoon in March 1990 when a bright, bubbly 13-year-old tennis prodigy named Jennifer Capriati made her professional debut at a Virginia Slims tournament in Boca Raton Fla. After winning her first match, she was taken aback by the legions of reporters and photographers who hung on her every girlish giggle at the press conference that followed. “I’m excited about my match,” she said, “but I think the media is kind of a little out of control.”

No doubt they were. After all, Capriati had already been touted as the heir apparent to the retiring queen of women’s tennis, Chris Evert, and the hype, it seemed, was totally justified. now, just four years later, it is America’s onetime teen sweetheart who has become tennis’ most spectacular and troubling dropout. On the morning of May 16, police in Coral Gables, Fla, following a phone tip from the mother of a 17-year-old runaway girl, knocked on the door of Room 109 at the Gables Inn motel.
Capriati let them into the $50-a-night room, for which she had registered two days earlier, and permitted a search. In a gym duffel bag, along with her personal possessions, police found a small bag of marijuana.

The lawmen were still in the room when Capriati’s green Mazda Miata convertible – a tournament prize – pulled into the parking lot. Behind the wheel was Thomas Wineland, 19, whom police later identified as a “drifter” from New Milford, Conn, with a criminal record. With him were the missing girl and 19-year-old Nathan Wilson of Hallandale, Fla. Wineland walked toward the room smoking a pipe filled with crack cocaine, which he tried to stuff into his pants when he saw the police. The young woman, from nearby Coconut Grove, later turned over two packets of heroin she had concealed in her crotch area.

As elements of the story came to light at midweek, it became evident that for Capriati this was not just a casual weekend fling but part of a deeper descent into the world of drugs. According to The Palm Beach Post, the arests capped a weekend of partying that had begun Friday night. Capriati had been at a friend’s house in Miami, where she met Mark Black, 19. The night desk clerk at the motel says Capriati checked in under her own name late Saturday, using her own credit card. Black told the Post that the party resumed Sunday afternoon and went on until 4 a.m with as many as 20 visitors to Room 109.
Wineland, who was booked for possession of suspected crack cocaine and drug paraphernalia, told a London tabloid that he and Capriati had smoked crack in the bathroom together.

“She smoked for a couple of hours, and then when we stopped, we started smoking reefers. She was also eating painkillers and drinking.”

Wineland claims she asked him to buy $200 worth of drugs with her money.

According to Wilson’s mother, Capriati was not new to the Miami social scene. For several months, said Susan wilson, “she’d come down [from her home in Boca Raton, just over an hour by car] almost every weekend and just kind of hang out with the group.” But Capriati’s troubles had started long before. “She has had a drug problem for at least a year,” says a close friend.

On May 18, two days after the arrest, Capriati entered the Addiction Treatment Center in Miami Beach. Without knowing all the details of her problem, Capriati’s friends were quick to blame a system that made her a millionaire but denied her so many of the ordinary experiences of childhood and adolescence.

“All this has very little to do with Jennifer,” says Norman Palmer, proprietor of the Palmer Preparatory School in Wesley Chapel, Fla, which Capriati attended until two years ago.

“It has to do with how we position young athletes in our society, what we overlook if there is money changing hands.” Adds CBS tennis commentator Mary Carillo:

“I don’t think children should be allowed to play professional tennis before the age of 18. There ought to be child-labor laws to prevent it.”

Yet Capriati was bred for tennis greatness. While she was still in the womb, her father, Stefano, an Italian-born, movie stuntman and soccer pro, told his wife, Denise, a former Pan Am flight attendant, that Jennifer would be a player. When Jennifer was a baby, Stefano propped a pillow under her and helped her do sit-ups. She held her first racket at 3. By age 12, Capriati was bulldozing girls her age and several years older. Eager for Jennifer to compete on the lucrative pro tour, Stefano pressured the Women’s Tennis Council to exempt Jennifer from the rule barring girls under 14.

“They made the rule because of the burnout of just two players, Austin and Jaeger,” he told World Tennis magazine. “But they don’t know Jennifer. She’s a very happy girl. She gets straight A’s in school, and she’s very healthy. She just wants to improve her tennis.”

At first, all the Capriatis – her parents, younger brother Steven, now 15, and Jennifer herself – were delighted by life on the glitzy international tour. Schooled in little but tennis, Jennifer hit the circuit wide-eyed and naive. In Paris for her first French Open in 1990, she express astonishment that Notre Dame was a cathedral, not a football team.

In 1991, Capriati reached the semifinals of the US Open and Wimbledon and became the youngest woman ever ranked in the top 10. Already she was earning $6 million in endorsement deals alone. Criticized by tennis writer Bud Collins for pushing his daughter, Stefano said, “look, I love my daughter more than you know. But where I come from we have a proverb: ‘When the apple is ripe, eat it.'”

In 1992, Jennifer turned 16, and life on the tour was beginning to pall. Winning only one title that year, Capriati became suly and uncommunicative. Even though she came away with a gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics, she described the year as a whole as “a waste.” Says Kevin O’Connor, tennis director at the Palmer School: “On the road she was surrounded by agents, manufacturers, promoters – all people who were asking something from her. She couldn’t share a lot, and I think it was isolating and lonely.”

Plagued by tendinitis and bone chips in her elbow, Capriati suffered a stunning first-round loss at the US Open in early September – and hasn’t played since. When she returned to Florida from the tour, she found it hard to fit in with old friends.

“Her peer group had moved on with their lives,” says O’Connor. “She had to create a group herself. I think she became fascinated with people who didn’t even know who she was. It was better than being around people who wanted something from her.”

Away from tennis, Capriati’s rebellion began to strain family relations. At a swimming pool one day, Stefano snatched an alcoholic drink from Jennifer’s hand and threw it in her face.
“It was a difficult time, with the family members yelling at each other,” says a person close to the Capriatis.

In November, Capriati moved out of her parents’ house in Saddlebrook and into a nearby apartment. A month later she was cited for shoplifting a $34.99 marcassite ring at a kiosk in a Tampa mall. A juvenile at thetime, she explained that it was an accident – that she had simply forgotten she had the ring – and received a private reprimand in family court.

In January, Capriati announced she would take an extended leave from the women’s tour to finish high school.

“She’s not rebelling,” Stefano Capriati insited to The New York Times.
“She’s testing everybody – me, her mother, her friends. She wants to see how they react to her if she doesn’t play tennis. And she’s testing herself too.”

Said Denise Capriati:

“The tennis, the money, the attention… it was like a merry-go-round that starts spinning really fast and you want to jump off, but you’re so caught up in it that you can’t.”

But Jennifer did, and she didn’t stop there. At the end of March, Capriati dropped out of Saddlebrook High School and moved to an apartment in Boca Raton. Then came her second arrest.

“I think a lot of this stems from not being able to do what she really wanted while she was young,” says Andrea Jaeger, 28, whose own promising tennis career was sidelined by injuries before she was 19.

“But in one sense, this could be the best thing that ever happened to her . Maybe this is the wake-up call – not just to Jennifer, but to everybody.”

Adds Mary Carillo:

“Just four years ago she had such unbridled joy and enthusiasm, in her game and in her face. She was such a great story, such a happy kid. It’s painful to look back at that today.”

Jennifer Capriati, Boca Raton 1990

By Dave Scheiber, Sports Illustrated, March 1990

Dazzling new tennis star Jennifer Capriati, 13, showed that her future is now by deftly handling more-experienced opponents – and the media – in her professional debut.

While hundreds of reporters descended of The Polo Club in Boca Raton, while thousands of spectators spilled through the gates, while other players at the Virginia Slims of Florida gazed at the mob scene with bemusements, the cause of all the excitement, 13-year-old Jennifer Capriati, was curled up inside Chris Evert‘s elegant stucco house several blocks from the stadium court, watching a rerun of The Bionic Woman. “It was a way for me to relax a little”, she said.

As it turned out, Capriati couldn’t have picked a more fitting show to tune in to as she savored some privacy with her father, Stefano, her mother, Denise, and her brother, Steven. Later than afternoon, faster than you could say Lindsay Wagner, Capriati dismantled 10-year veteran Mary Lou Daniels 7-6 6-1 – for the record, the date was March 6, 1990 – to earn a victory in her first match as a pro. By week’s end Capriati, the kid with the grown-up groundstrokes, had served stirring notice that a new American tennis heroine had arrived, ready to pick up where Evert left off when she hung up her racket last year.

“This wasn’t a debut,” said Ted Tinling, the 80-year-old tennis eminence. “It was a premiere!”

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Stefan Edberg

By Bill Simons, Inside Tennis, July 2004

From Laver and the good ol’ Aussies to Sampras and Henman, tennis has been blessed with many a fine sporting lad. But none had better timing than Stefan Edberg. In fact, the Swede emerged just as the scowl-and-stare era of men’s tennis was raging. At a mean and macho time when implosions were expected and ferocity was a given, elegant Edberg entered the game with a minimalist, (be joyous within and walk lightly upon this Earth) sensibility.

Never mind that Connors, McEnroe, and Lendl were setting a mean-spirited snipe-and-run tone. Never mind that critics claimed tennis was free-falling out of control and was in danger of becoming a kind of World Wrestling Federation wannabe. As it happened — don’t worry, be happy — Edberg was there to save the day.

After all, no matter how bad his luck, no matter how outrageous the call, the Gentleman Champion never complained. For Stefan, a raised eyebrow was the equivalent of a full-blown Connors convulsion. A simple Edbergian inquiry to the chair umpire — “Are you sure?” — was his version of a McEnroe meltdown. There was no Becker-like gamesmanship, or anything like Lendl’s intimidating, icy stare.

It’s little wonder that Becker once told him, “You’re the greatest tennis ambassador I’ve ever known.”

Commentator Mary Carillo raved, “I’m such a big Eddy fan. He’s been the classiest, most elegant No. 1 that men’s tennis has had. He leads a very balanced life. He understands fame, fortune and celebrity better than just about any superstar I’ve ever met.” In a “narcissists gone wild” world, where a sense of entitlement was a given and it was just presumed that he who had the biggest toys (or private jets) won, Edberg was down to earth and solid — a freak of nature who was so normal he was abnormal.

Not surprisingly, the ATP honored him with its Sportsmanship Award five times and then threw in the towel and just named the award after him.
Edberg’s appeal was the sheer beauty of his strokes and the rhythmic fluidity of his movement. Sure, his pushy forehand was a foible never quite fixed, but his looping backhand was a shot apart, and his easy, balletic grace was a sublime delight. He brilliantly executed tennis’ most important and complex sequence, the serve-and-volley, and was a master of the perfectly timed chip-and-charge. Only McEnroe matched his skills at capturing control of the net. Once there, Edberg prowled with razor-sharp reflexes and merciless instinct, dishing out unforgiving volleys, particularly on the backhand side.

There was always something different about Stefan. He not only was a bizarre kind of throwback: a thrifty, conservative introvert in a self-indulgent, me-first modernist universe, on-court he was a true mutant: a serve-and-volleyer who emerged from Sweden’s homogeneous, stuck-at-the-baseline, gene pool.
Despite his mild appearance, Edberg was a fighter. His coach, Tony Pickard, famously informed us that he had “fire in his belly.” Plus, he was a true triple threat. He won six Grand Slam singles titles (two Wimbledons, two U.S. Opens and two Australians), 41 singles crowns, was ranked No. 1 in ‘90 and ‘91, was a top-five player for nine years in a row, he won 18 doubles titles and, after McEnroe, was the most heroic Davis Cup player of our era, a patriot who willed little Sweden to four Davis Cup titles. He was the only player ever to have won the Junior Grand Slam, won the ‘84 Olympics and played in 53 straight Grand Slam tournaments.

He knew how to come from behind, as he did when he was down 3-1 to Becker in the fifth set of their ‘90 Wimbledon final. He could outlast his foes, like when he beat Michael Chang in five hours, 26 minutes in ‘92 in the longest U.S. Open match ever. Or he could dominate. Just ask Jim Courier, whom he crushed 6-2, 6-4, 6-0 in the most inspired match of his career — the ‘91 U.S. Open final.

It was easy to dismiss Edberg as a too-good-to-be-true, squeaky-clean Eagle Scout who was not exactly the life of the party. When the London tabloids set out to discover his dirty laundry, they found out only that Edberg washed his own clothes. For years, his wife cut his hair. Still, his career has been filled with a mix of sad or bizarre happenings. When he played the U.S. Open Juniors, one of his kick serves smashed a linesman in the groin. The linesman then toppled over, hit his head on the court and suffered a fatal heart attack. In mid-career Edberg courted and, in ‘92, married Mats Wilander’s former girlfriend, Annette Olson. Throughout his years his Nordic appeal didn’t go unnoticed. “What a body,” said one Wimbledon observer, “he’s so cute, and those legs…”

Early in his career, when things got rough, he would drop his shoulders and mope, projecting “woe-is-me” body language. And, of course, even the mighty Edberg had his share of setbacks. He failed miserably on clay at the French Open, just once reaching beyond the fourth round. And he failed to convert his golden opportunity when he was up, two sets to one, to Michael Chang in the ‘89 final. (Later he would wryly quip that Michael won because he “had God on his side.”) Then there was the highly forgettable, mercifully brief “Norwegian Joke” phase of his career when, with a series of insufferable quips, Edberg tried to convince journalists that he was some kind of wild and crazy guy. Not!

Still, he was the co-ringleader of the Great Potty Protest of ‘87, when two of the game’s most mild-mannered, compliant soldiers — Edberg and Wilander — stepped way out of character and hid in the U.S. Open locker room for 15 minutes before their semi to protest that they were being forced to play at 11 a.m. in a virtually vacant stadium.

The incident was so remarkable because, as McEnroe said,

“He was seemingly immune to getting upset. I never heard anyone say anything bad about him and he never said anything bad about anyone.”

Sampras suggested, “When parents are looking for a role model, Stefan is the player to look to.”

A man of grace, blessed with quick stutter steps, deep-angled volleys and flowing backhand — now has seamlessly embraced all-court domesticity with a vengeance. Happily married and living in rural Sweden near his seaside birthplace, Vastervik, he now rises early to make sure his two kids get to school. He manages his investments and oversees his tennis foundation, which helps Swedish teens excel.

Of course, all this white picket fence/Ozzie and Harriet normalcy is hardly a shock. After all, never has there been a more balanced, “aw-shucks,” tennis champion, and a No.1 who so easily dismissed the siren song of fame and indulgent consumerism than this policeman’s son who played with the blissful ease of a dancer lost in an unending moment.

Photo: Tennis Buzz, Lagardere Trophy 2010

Vitas Gerulaitis

Excerpt of Jimmy Connors‘ autobiography The Outsider:

A friend remembered

Vitas Gerulaitis was 17 and I was 19 when we first met, after he met the Riordan circuit.
We hung out a lot together through the 70s and 80s. When I won the US Open in 1978, I went out for a celebration dinner at Maxwell’s Plum in Manhattan. Vitas drove up and parked right in front of the restaurant, and let me tell you, he was hard to miss: Vitas was the only guy around tennis – or around most places – who drove a yellow Rolls Royce. He got out of the car with two cute young girls who couldn’t have been a day over 18, waltzed in, and sat down to congratulate me. He was the only one who did that. He was all class.

What the public saw was the real Vitas: the dazzling smile, the free-spirited guitar-playing rocker, the over-the-top playboy lifestyle. Yet he was also one of the most decent guys I’ve ever known, and everyone liked him.
Although he had his own crowd that included Borg and Mac, Vitas and I were close, and it was a no-bullshit friendship. It was an open secret that Vitas had a big problem with cocaine, and it led to his retirement from the game at the end of 1985.
Without the discipline of tennis to hold him in check, Vitas’ habit intensified dramatically. It’s the reason I asked him in 1989 to travel with me to Europe for five months. I might not have been his closest buddy, but you don’t abandon people when the going gets tough. As much as I hated drugs, we were buddies throughout the good, the bad and the ugly of it all.

My friend Vitas was only 40 years old when he died. He was very close to his mom and his sister, he was a good son and brother and always looked after his family. Patti and I went to his funeral, at St Dominic, in Oyster Bay, Long Island, and joined 500 other people – including Mac, Borg, Billie Jean King, Tony Trabert, Jack Kramer, Bill Talbert, Fred Stolle, and Mary Carillo – to mourn our friend. Out if respect for Vitas, the governor closed the Long Island Expressway when they took his casket from the church to the cemetery.

Vitas brought a lot to tennis – not just his athletic style of play but also his rock-star sex appeal, which added a new dimension to the tour. He was a wild and flamboyant but also a great champion, winning the Australian Open in 1977 and reaching the finals of the French Open and the US Open. He was a Davis Cup participant and winner of 25 Grand Prix tournaments.
Is any of that recognized by the tennis establishment? No. Vitas had a Hall of Fame career, but apparently he didn’t have a Hall of Virtue career, but who does? It shouldn’t be the case but his outstanding record and major contribution to the sport have, sadly, been overshadowed by his issues off the court.
I miss him.”